I remember going to the video store in '89 or so and seeing the poster for War Party on the wall. It depicted a group of young Native American braves holding their tomahawks high as flaming wreckage burned in the background. I could only assume it was an action movie about a modern Native American rebellion of sorts. It wasn't until 20 years later that I saw the film On Demand.
War Party does become a neo-Western in some ways, but it is not a slam-bang action flick. It is actually a very raw and thought provoking tragedy that sheds light on life in a native reservation and the conditions and attitudes indigenous people have faced and continue to face.
The film opens with the aftermath of a battle in Montana between the Union cavalry and a war party of Blackfoot warriors. In a very skillful use of allegorical transition, three of the natives' stallions ride away from the cavalry and into present day. Sonny Crowkiller(Billy Wirth, "The Lost Boys")is a descendant of the chief who led the charge in that battle. He's a teenager in love who, like many in his community, is caught between two worlds and is unsure of his future. The native and white communities have agreed to put on a recreation of the historical Battle of Milk River, and the racial tension between the two groups is so thick you can cut it with a knife. In particular, there's Calvin(Kevyn Major Howard, "Full Metal Jacket"), a hateful redneck who has beef with a friend of Sonny's.
On the day of the re-enactment, Calvin brings live ammunition and spitefully murders Sonny's friend, which prompts Sonny to cut him down with a tomahawk. Soon the battle becomes a REAL battle, and Sonny and his mixed-ancestry friend Skitty(Kevin Dillon "Entourage") and Warren(Tim Sampson) are on the run from racist vigilantes, clueless law enforcement, a Crow tracker and even the National Guard.
It is at this point where War Party feels like a familiar throwback to "on the lam" themed Westerns, but with a different modern context and subtext. Sonny and his friends aren't looking to kick paleface ass, they're just kids trying to escape and live free and who only take up arms to defend themselves. Meanwhile, their families and the community at large struggle to make sense of the terrible misunderstanding. The film's depiction of the native community was one not often seen in Hollywood, and is sobering to say the least.
The problems that beset War Party is that it often struggles to make sense of what type of film it truly wants to be. A protest film? An adventure film? It could have been all of these things if the writers had honed their end product down to a finer edge. While some of the acting and dialog is very good, some people are miscast. Kevin Dillon is a great actor, but I simply couldn't accept him as a partial Blackfoot. When he's dressed in war paint and full Blackfoot garb, he looks like a Celtic warrior off to fight the Romans instead of the US cavalry. His heavy East Coast accent didn't help either. There is also Tim Sampson, the son of noted Native American actor Will Sampson. Supposedly, he's the third member of this band of brothers, but his character is barely fleshed out. We don't really know much about him, so its hard to connect with him.
Two years after this film was made, Canada experienced a tense confrontation between the Canadian military and Mohawks in Quebec in what became known as the Oka Crisis. Looking back, its interesting to see how War Party fits in both the cinematic depictions of indigenous peoples of North America and the consciousness of both native and non-native peoples in the greater public. While Dances With Wolves might get the lion's share of attention, I think War Party was willing to go where few would dare.