Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Annie Galipeau, Graham Greene
Director: Richard Attenborough
For this biopic about the boy from Hastings who assumed the name Grey Owl and became, in the words of his publicist, “the most famous Red Indian in the world”, the late Lord Richard Attenborough teamed up for a second time with William Nicolson, his scriptwriter on Shadowlands. The film plays its cards close to his chest just as the real-life Archibal Belaney did, tracing his career in flashback and seeing him largely from the outside, through the eyes of Pony (Annie Galipeau), the delightfully mouthy urbanized Mohawk girl who becomes his soulmate and turns him away from hunting and trapping onto the path of conversation that was to make him a household name and a guest of kings.
Throughout, Attenborough’s eye for period detail is astute, and Nicolson’s script is cleverly aware of the ironies of the story: that Archie does a better job of imitating a Native American than the real Native Americans do; that he is seen as a custodian of their lore but (it turns out) got a lot of what he knows from a careful reading of Longfellow’s Hiawatha; and how, later on when he is the darling of the newly fledged conservationist movement, he makes stirring speeches about the order of nature and how every creature has a rightful place in it, but flouts these laws himself. As a examination of the fine line between self-actualization and outright fakeness, it’s very interesting, and it makes you realize that so many films of Attenborough’s films were about performance: Chaplin, Young Winston, even Gandhi, with A Chorus Line fitting very snugly into the list.
Where the film is less palatable is in its celebration of Archie the conservationist. After trapping the poor things ruthlessly for years, he suddenly became much concerned with the plight of the beaver, and there’s a fair bit of footage of Archie and Pony fondling beavers, swimming with beavers and talking about beavers at home and to awestruck crowds. It’s enough to make you giggle a bit at times, but there’s no doubt that Lord Attenborough meant all this sincerely: he met the real Grey Owl as a youth, and his independent production company was called Beaver Films. Rocking hair extensions, Pierce Brosnan is frostily impressive, even if you never seriously believe he could have passed for a half-breed.