Subtext Versus Jackhammer: Emotional Health and Ultraviolence in Pathfinder

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September 18, 2007

Russell Means, the Lakota activist, actor, libertarian, and occasional political candidate, has a new film out this year -- Pathfinder: Legend of the Ghost Warrior, released this past April and now available on DVD. Despite the title and unlike Means' debut film (Michael Mann's 1992 The Last of the Mohicans) Pathfinder is not based on one of the James Fenimore Cooper adventure novels, but is instead set long before the arrival of Columbus.

Like Kevin Costner's 1990 Dances With Wolves and Mel Gibson's 2006 Apocalypto, Pathfinder introduces us to peaceful, charming natives who come under attack by a violent and stunningly cruel external group. The natives and their contrast with the invaders form the heart of the film -- although this seems a minority opinion. More on that later.

Pathfinder's protagonist is played by Karl Urban, probably best known for his role as a corrupt Russian agent trying to kill Jason Bourne in The Bourne Supremacy. Urban looks so different in Pathfinder that I had to read the credits to learn who he was; there is not a moment in Bourne when Urban looks as sweet-natured as he often does here -- surprising, given the level of violence in Pathfinder. Urban's character is raised among Wampanoag Indians after being shipwrecked as a boy of twelve. The boy, well-played by Burkely Duffield, is rescued by an Indian woman (Michelle Thrush) who finds him in the wreckage of a Viking ship, surrounded by weapons and by the corpses of slaves or prisoners, some in chains. She becomes the boy's adopted mother, and the tribe calls him Ghost. Russell Means plays a neighboring tribe's Pathfinder, a shaman and the closest thing I recall in the film to a chief or other formal leader among the Indians.* The casting and acting are uniformly excellent.

Vikings return after Ghost has grown to manhood. While Ghost is on a hunt, they attack his village and murder everyone, including his adoptive parents. The Vikings are shockingly brutal, not only in this initial assault but throughout the film. There is enough mass-murder, torture, dismemberment, and other atrocity here to repel many viewers. The Orlando Sentinel called Pathfinder "gloriously gory," something I know only because the film's official website features this quote on its home page. The description fits.

Ghost has been practicing with a Viking sword even since before being shipwrecked in childhood. The sword is as eerily high-tech in this setting as any science-fiction weapon, easily slicing through the Indians' wooden spears. Both Ghost and the marauding, anonymous Vikings (between full-face helmets and facepaint, it's difficult to tell one Viking from another) use their swords to devastating effect; limbs fly from bodies, faces are split, eyes are lost, and blood sprays everywhere. Disappointing box-office numbers suggest director Marcus Nispel may have overdone the mayhem and cruelty, at least from a marketing standpoint. Many reviewers complained about the level of violence in Pathfinder. Strong reactions to this violence may have blinded some to the artistic merits of the film and, more importantly (to me, at least), to the haunting depiction of the Indians as a warm and emotionally healthy group of people.

The flip side of any argument against so much violence and cruelty is that nothing Nispel can show us is beyond what actually happens in the world. The harsh, unrelentingly sadistic character of the Vikings not only contrasts strongly with the peaceful and compassionate character of the Indians, it describes a horror so commonplace throughout history as to make one wonder how the human race has survived to this point -- and whether we can survive for long in the future.

The answer to that last question will be determined by how quickly and dramatically we can raise the levels of love and freedom in this world.

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The violence of Pathfinder is hard to ignore in the same way that noise from a nearby jackhammer is hard to ignore, but the most important things in life (or in film) are not always the loudest.

Director Nispel, screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, and the many actors cast as Indians have created a charming, attractive, peaceful, strong, and affectionate tribal group. They did this with great economy, as was necessary given the time constraints (99 minutes of running time). Despite the time limitations, Pathfinder succeeds in providing a tantalizing, heart-warming introduction to a group that seems far more emotionally healthy than do most modern "first world" citizens. Easy affection, direct and honest talk, and relaxed physical contact are all part of daily life among the Wampanoag. This is not a group of saccharine Disney bunnies but instead a tribal village of real human beings -- without the crushing load of emotional damage so visible among most people today and throughout history.

One need not be raised in a pre-modern tribal setting to become an emotionally healthy human being, and for that matter plenty of ancient settings, tribal and otherwise, have created monsters. Yet it is not only in movies where one sees, at least occasionally, startling examples of emotional health within tribes that are physically or temporally far from modern, high-tech life. Here's a brief description of the Yequana Indians of Brazil from Jean Liedloff, who lived with the tribe for several years in the 1970s:

The notion of ownership of other persons is absent among the Yequana. . . . Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence -- let alone coerce -- anyone.

~Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost

Imagine a world where people care about each other, are compassionate with each other (as Liedloff's book makes clear the Yequana are), and have no "impulse to influence -- let alone coerce -- anyone." That would be the end of war and of almost any human evil of any kind.

Love and freedom only work together; they are two sides of a duality in life that cannot be broken. When both love and freedom are at high levels in society, then you have a healthy situation. In fact, you have an Earthly Paradise. The other details are merely that: details.

Any work of art which can open a window on such a world, however briefly or incompletely, is worthy of praise.

How could such a world come into being?

The same way it comes into being now -- as it does, here and there, in small groups in various places.

The process starts at birth and even before: love begets love; pain begets pain. To expand on that thought:

1. The human world is as we make it.

2. The character of each adult is largely shaped in the earliest months and years of life.

3. Consistent love and respect given early in life create healthy, loving adults who respect others.

4. Any person or group which improves the lives of pregnant mothers, infants, or children contributes to the goal of a healthy world. To a lesser extent, improving the life of any person contributes to the goal.

5. Enough healthy, loving adults will make a healthy, loving world.

6. Freedom is a necessary part of love. Unfreedom (coercion) is abuse; it erodes and destroys love.

7. Change happens when enough people share the necessary understanding.

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Pathfinder is essentially two films: the stylized, blood-spewing, ultra-violent thrill ride that was advertised in the trailers, and an endearing visit to another world entirely: the world of our hearts, the world we were born for, all of us, whether we know it or not.

The second film is all-too-brief, but it is the subtext for the whole enterprise, and I recommend it highly.

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* Russell Means strongly prefers "American Indian" to "Native American" and explains why in I am an American Indian, not a Native American! (scroll down for this topic). Means' comments on patriarchy versus matriarchy are also worth mentioning here, given the topic of this column.

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Columns on STR: 105

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity. He maintains paradise-paradigm.net. This is one in a series of columns on the human condition.