Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Death in the Land of Enchantment: Tony Hillerman On Screen

Let’s get this straight: Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) was not a Navajo.  Nor did he belong to any of the other Native American tribes that still populate the American Southwest. Oklahoma-born, Hillerman was of German descent, and remained throughout his life a practicing Roman Catholic. But he built his career on eighteen mystery novels featuring Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Particularly after his move, as a young journalist, to New Mexico, he became fascinated by the spirituality and the harmony with nature embedded in the traditional Navajo (or Diné) way of life. One of his proudest possessions in later years was a plaque from the Navajo nation naming him among the Special Friends of the Diné, for his skill in respectfully conveying tribal ways to generations of readers, both Native American and not.

 My colleague James McGrath Morris is another writer who’s an adoptive son of New Mexican. He’s built his career on biography, and it was no surprise to see him plunge into Hillerman’s life story, which includes an impoverished childhood a serious injury on a World War II battlefield, and a long, happy marriage. I salute Jamie Morris on the publication of Tony Hillerman: A Life, now newly available in stores and the usual online outlets.  

 Since Hillerman often reached Best Seller status, it’s easy to imagine that Hollywood would have come calling. And it did, via actor/director Robert Redford, who has his own emotional connection to the Southwest and its native people.  Redford’s first attempt, backing a 1991 film version of Hillerman’s The Dark Wind, was an unmitigated failure, stemming perhaps from the wrong choice of director (Errol Morris, a famed documentarian, had never made a feature film) and producing partners. Lou Diamond Phillips and other major players were not Native Americans, despite an initial promise that native people be hired to fill out the cast, and Hopi and Navajo tribesmen took offense at how they were portrayed in the film’s story line. Both Redford and Hillerman came out of the experience feeling humiliated.

 They tried again in 2002 with a TV movie, Skinwalkers. It featured two Native American leading men, Adam Beach as the young, eager Jimmy Chee and Wes Studi as the more haunted Lt. Joe Leaphorn. Director Chris Eyre had tribal roots as well. The production, aired as part of PBS’s usually Anglo-centric Mystery series, garnered high ratings, and led to two more Leaphorn/Chee dramas, Coyote Waits and A Thief of Time, both released in 2003.  The major cast, featuring native women as well as men, remained the same as before, and new tax breaks led to filming in New Mexico, always a vital supporting character in a Hillerman story.

 I recently watched A Thief of Time with a mixture of pleasure and annoyance. Some of the acting is weak, and Hillerman’s complicated storyline (which mixes arcane tribal beliefs with some good old-fashioned murder) is hard to follow. But Wes Studi, who first made his mark in Dances with Wolves, is an effectively taciturn Leaphorn, and it’s a delight to see movie veteran Graham Greene, an Oscar nominee from that same 1990 epic, as Slick Nakai, a scalawag evangelist who peddles native antiquities on the side. According to Jamie Morris, Hillerman started out convinced that a novelist had no business trying to interfere with the filming of his book. But he did express objections (to no avail) when his female archaeologist character was turned into a flaming sexpot.  Still, the film succeeds in showing us the magnificent New Mexico landscape in all its red-rock glory. 


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