Until walking on the trail near the Oasis Visitor Center at our first stop in Joshua Tree National Park and beginning to read the signs accompanying the exhibit lining that trail, I hadn't thought about the movie Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here since the first and only time I saw it upon its release in 1969. But such is my movie jones that after reading the first of those eleven signs, it was almost like the fifty plus years since I've seen the film hadn't happened. The plot came back to me whole.
I immediately recalled Robert Blake as Willie Boy and Robert Redford portraying a reluctant lawman sent to pursue Blake into this desolate landscape. Though I couldn't recall the names of either of the actresses who played Blake's and Redford's love interests, a back-to-back scene from the film that juxtaposed the different dynamic between the two sets of lovers jumped into my brain almost as though I'd watched it just last week.
When I shared some of this with the friend who is with us on this first leg of our trip, she asked me what made the film so memorable. And until I answered her straightforward question, I didn't fully appreciate how formative a learning experience this movie was for my twenty year-old brain.
After a childhood and adolescence filled with a different narrative, I'm reasonably sure Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here was the first time I ever saw a portrayal of an Indian as someone human. Not an enemy to be vanquished, not a scalp-hungry beast, not a noble or other type of savage. A man - possibly innocent - on the run and in love. Those eleven signs on that trail - told from the point of view of Willie Boy's lover Carlotta - helped me to see that this film had marked a turning point in my young adult life as a critical thinker. Before I'd read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, before I'd visited the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota, before I'd learned of the many atrocities Native Americans have endured throughout American history, Abraham Polonsky's film started an important piece of my education.
What film has done something similar for you?