Unhappily, a look at Indian life is through the eyes of a white man

March 28, 1992|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Remorse for collective wrongs may be admirable, but it can also seem self-indulgent -- which is the primary problem with "The Last of His Tribe," a handsomely produced period movie premiering at 8 tonight on HBO.

Jon Voight plays a turn-of-the-century anthropologist studying an Indian who is apparently the only survivor of his tribe. The Yahi were wiped out by white men, and native actor Graham Greene ("Dances With Wolves") portrays the Indian. A number of Indian extras were used in the cast, too.

The film's story supposedly springs from the true experience of a prominent figure in the study of Indian tribes, University of California professor Alfred Kroeber, who worked with an Indian named "Ishi" (for "man" in his native tongue). Ishi was employed as a caretaker at the university's San Francisco anthropology museum and helped authenticate its displays of native customs.

Rich on-location scenery in wild California and an authentic period feel highlight the film, which earnestly hits all the expected notes: condemnation of the white man's wanton treatment, belated respect for tribal traditions and the same over-idealizing of primitive culture that flawed "Dances With Wolves" (as well as the current theatrical film, "Medicine Man").

Yet despite its good intentions -- publicity material notes that Mr. Voight is active in the Indian rights movement -- the movie seemingly adds neglect to the legacy of cultural collision by paying more attention to the scientist than to his ostensible subject.

For in the film, Kroeber's wife (Anne Archer) is seriously ill, and his inability to accept the truth of her fate takes center stage. Ishi's far greater loss -- all his people -- gets tangled up with Kroeber's personal pain.

Making the white man's psychological flaws the dramatic crux seems one more Caucasian arrogance, even while presented in contrast to the Indian's perhaps more enlightened acceptance of fate.

Far more fascination would seem to lie in Ishi's reactions to and stoic acceptance of the new culture that embraces him, as well as in the life taken from him by that culture. But we get too few touches of those interests in "The Last of His Tribe."

For example, when reporters ask Kroeber what Ishi has found most amazing in the era of automobiles and airplanes, he replies, the window shade." Couldn't we have seen a scene that depicted this, and other adaptations to modern things?

More regrettably, what we see of Ishi's tribal life is of little depth, largely flashback re-creations of the senseless attack on his people and the subsequent brutal hunt of the survivors, including himself, his mother and a sister.

The flashbacks are intensified as Kroeber and some associates, including David Ogden Stiers as a physician friend, take Ishi back to the valley where he lived. Yet even their embrace of the outdoors, as they hunt with bow and arrow, seems curiously artificial and condescending.



LOCAL PRODUCTION: A pair of locally made specials

tonight feature teens in greatly different contexts:

* Area high school students learn the grim realities of Maryland's high infant mortality and teen pregnancy rates in "If You Are Pregnant," at 7 p.m. on WJZ-TV (Channel 13).

Produced in partnership with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the show is the second of two documentaries exploring statistics that show Maryland ranks as ninth highest in the nation in numbers of infant deaths. Baltimore City ranks third overall, and is first in the number of white infant deaths.

The show, with host Sandra Pinckney, contends that a high level of teen pregnancy coupled with a low level of prenatal care and abuse of drugs and alcohol have created both infant mortality and the birth of shockingly tiny, premature babies.

In a striking sequence, a group of teens from a number of area schools tour the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Maryland Hospital and the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. Some react with shock and tears to the impossibly vulnerable newborns, and the Channel 13 cameras capture the genuine emotion.

* Top students competed in the Maryland State Geography Bee yesterday in Annapolis, and Maryland Public Television is airing an hour's coverage at 8 tonight.

Mac McGarry, longtime host of the smart teens' quiz show "It's Academic," is host of the program.

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