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October 23, 2013

Tecumseh's story cries out for a Hollywood film

Fred Donnelly

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Oct. 5 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of a North American hero and leader who has never been the subject of a Hollywood film.

Tecumseh (1768-1813) was killed in action at the Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, near what is now the city of Chatham, by American troops.

His was a life, if ever there was one, lived on the heroic scale. Tecumseh, whose name can be translated as "panther in the sky," was a Shawnee born in Ohio who grew up in turbulent times of the American Revolution and various Indian wars. He lost both family members and ancestral lands in these brutal conflicts.

He understood his people's greatest threat came from the "long knives," a.k.a. Americans, who were relentlessly expanding westward into Indian lands. Tecumseh fought them throughout various campaigns as well as in the War of 1812 in alliance with the British.

His vision was of a pan-Indian alliance that would cut across traditional tribalism and for a new territory in the Ohio, Indiana and Michigan region that would form a new Indian nation. Personally brave in battle, he was also cunning. The latter skill was in evidence when Tecumseh helped capture Detroit by a clever strategy of marching his warriors repeatedly around the walled town so as to give the appearance of greater numbers.

Tall and handsome, he was a leader but never really a chief of his own people. He disputed the chiefs' authority to sell lands to the Americans, asking whether it was also possible to sell the air.

Rising above the cruelties of his own culture, he objected to the brutal and often deadly treatment meted out by his own people to captives.

More importantly, he was, by all accounts a great orator. Here are the words of John Dunn Hunter, who translated a Tecumseh speech in late 1811:

"I wish it was in my power to do justice to the eloquence of this distinguished man, but it is utterly impossible. The richest colours, shaded with a master's pencil, would fall infinitely short of the glowing finish of the original. The occasion and subject were peculiarly adapted to call into action all the powers of genuine patriotism, and such language, such gestures, and such feelings and fullness of soul contending for utterance, were exhibited by this untutored native of the forest in the central wilds of America, as no audience ... either in ancient or modern times ever before witnessed."

Tecumseh died in battle overwhelmed by superior numbers and deserted by his British allies and by some of his own warriors. His dream of an Indian nation on the western edge of the American colonies evaporated along with armed resistance by most tribes.

While there have been lots of books written on the life of Tecumseh and some documentaries have been made, there has never been a Hollywood-style film. (The only exception is a little-known East German biopic made in 1972.)

Why? Could it be because Americans don't like to make movies about enemies? That can't be right, because they gained immense glory as the winners in a conflict against a formidable foe. In fact, several towns in the U.S. are named after Tecumseh and there is even one in Ontario — northeast of Windsor. Years later, a couple of U.S. Civil War officers were even named after him, notably William Tecumseh Sherman.

In Canada he is a hero, and his image was put on a Canadian coin in 2012.

Could it be because a glorious loser is not a Hollywood type subject? But think of Spartacus (1960), starring Kirk Douglas in the title role of the rebel slave leader who was finally crucified by the Romans.

Perhaps the explanation is that Hollywood focuses far too much on the smaller scale Indian conflicts west of the Mississippi which took place after the Civil War ended in 1865, although there are exceptions such as Daniel Day-Lewis' Last of the Mohicans (1992), which is set in the eastern part of America in the 18th century.

Whatever the reason, our culture's neglect of this magnificent and tragic historical figure escapes me. Where is today's David Lean, who won the Best Picture Academy Award of 1962 for his epic Lawrence of Arabia, to tell Tecumseh's story in the movies?

Fred Donnelly writes on popular culture. (troymedia.com)

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