Writer Edwards begins with the fateful 1815 Battle of Thames in Ontario, Canada, and folds back to Tecumseh’s childhood with his warrior father, Hardstriker; loving mother, Turtle Mother; brothers Chiksika and Loud Noise; and sister Starwatcher.
There’s a talk with his dynamic father, a moving burial, the boy Tecumseh’s first battle (he flees), a grieving widow, a simple wedding ceremony (with a banal wedding-night interlude) and a simple separation. The Shawnee here often speak everyday English, which gives the dialogue an awkward tone, but their style is earnest.
Heroic Tecumseh’s purposes are to halt encroaching settlers as well as to preserve Indian independence and traditions. He creates a plan in which North American Indians from Canada to Florida would form a democratic confederacy against the whites. The Pan-Indian idea angers William Henry Harrison, Indiana territory governor; the ambitious Harrison, later U.S. president, has little patience with Tecumseh, the Shawnees or any other Indians.
That’s the setup for the adult Tecumseh. Younger brother Loud Noise shifts from a trouble-making alcoholic into a Shawnee prophet, Open Door, who fathers a powerful religious movement, though his role in history doesn’t get much credit here; he’s portrayed as a fool.
He and Tecumseh form Prophet Town, where various tribes gather for spiritual reunion and for anti-white revving-up. Open Door’s decline comes when, despite Tecumseh’s warning, he launches an attack on Harrison’s forces, bringing on his own disgrace.
In the script, powerful speaker Tecumseh’s celebrated confrontation with Harrison is bold but truncated.
Battles look great, but the reasons for the Indian shellacking at Falling Timbers aren’t much explored and, despite the telefilm’s implication, the Shawnees were only one of the tribes engaged in the battle. The fateful Battle of the Thames plays out fine, but its significance is lost in a romanticized, sentimental finale. ]
Director Larry Elikann marshals his civvy and uniformed forces to superb effect, and many domestic scenes are moving. Unhappily, IDs of the participants aren’t always clear, so it’ll be tough sledding for many viewers, even those familiar with the facts.
Casting is another matter: Tecumseh, played as an adult by Jesse Borrego, is scarcely a “powerfully built” man, as history describes him, or “rather imposing ,” as the script mentions, or heroic. Nor is this Tecumseh as written by Edwards the eloquent orator his contemporaries described; here, he mostly stands on the sideline while others speak. ]
Jeri Arredondo, as his sister, is impressive, and Tantoo Cardinal, who occasionally reports events in voiceover, is particularly persuasive as the mother. David Clennon’s William Henry Harrison, the Indians’ nemesis, is on target.
Lorne Cardinal’s Open Door isn’t convincing, but Gregory Norman Cruz lends dignity and purpose to Chiksika, Tecumseh’s strong older brother, and Jimmie F. Skaggs, as the courageous Hardstriker, is solid. Holt McCallany plays the unusual role of Blue Jacket, a white character who joins the Shawnee and whose story deserves a telefilm itself. David Morse fills in well as a settler who talks things over with Tecumseh.
Telepic looks splendid, with production designer Michael Baugh ingeniously substituting North Carolina’s forests, streams and woodlands for the Ohio and Indiana territories. Peter V. White’s editing is a plus, and Dick LaMotte’s costumes look authentic. David Shire’s sympathetic score is helpful and admirably unobtrusive.