In revisiting the tale of fugitive lovers on the run in California’s High Desert, the makers of “The Last Manhunt” sought to correct a story that has remained very much alive for the indigenous Chemehuevi people of the region for more than 100 years.
Produced by Jason Momoa’s On the Roam and directed by Christian Camargo from a script by Thomas Pa’a Sibbett, “The Last Manhunt” opens this year’s inaugural Pioneertown International Film Festival, which takes place May 27-29. The historic movie-set town, home to the popular Pappy & Harriet’s music club, is located near the actual site of the events that transpired in 1909 in and around Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree National Park.
It was there that Willie Boy met and fell in love with Carlota, the daughter of local tribal chief William Mike. After a confrontation that ends in the death of her father, Willie Boy and Carlota flee into the desert, pursued by a posse.
Momoa heard the tale while in the Joshua Tree area, where he also owns a home. In developing the project, Momoa and Sibbet, who co-wrote the story, met with leaders of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians hoping to win their trust and consent. There was some apprehension since prominent tribal members are direct descendants of Carlota’s family, Sibbet notes.
Unlike previous versions, Momoa and Sibbett, both Native Hawaiians, sought to explore the story from an indigenous point of view, to convey it according to the Chemehuevi’s oral account of what happened. “That was one thing we felt very strongly about,” says On the Roam producer Martin Kistler. It was therefore necessary to involve the Native community “to make sure their voices are heard in retelling, or correcting, the history.”
In his 1969 film, “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here,” starring Robert Redford, Robert Blake and Katharine Ross, director Abraham Polonsky largely focused on Redford’s character, the lawman, and his pursuit of a wanted outlaw.
“The Last Manhunt” tells a much broader story.
“This is a living story for the Chemehuevi people,” says Sibbett. “It has a special place for them. So we can honor their oral traditions by just listening to them and really think about how the story can make an impact.”
“Looking at it from a native perspective, you get a much fuller story and just like any good story, it’s complicated. That’s what we found that was interesting.”
Indeed, Sibbett describes it as a “classic tale of love and tragedy” — with “a very similar arc to that of Eurydice and Orpheus.”
The truth of what happened, however, hasn’t been told, Sibbett adds. “The story has been preserved in all the wrong ways. It was preserved in newspapers that were completely slanted; it was preserved in other people’s accounts.” Burdened by the fear-mongering media reports of the time, and the tragic impact the events had on the Twenty-Nine Palms Band, the story has remained permeated with darkness.
“It really felt like a way for us to be able to set the spirits free, give them fresh air, just let Carlota and Willie Boy’s story be remembered in a different way,” says Sibbett.
Momoa, who stars with Camargo in the Apple TV Plus series “See,” originally planned to direct “The Last Manhunt,” with Camargo, who also lives in Joshua Tree, set to play the sheriff. When Momoa’s busy schedule prevented that, he asked Camargo to additionally take over as director. “Jason felt very passionate about this project and he and I both have a real affinity for Joshua Tree, this area,” Camargo says.
The film has been “an opportunity to correct the narrative,” Camargo adds. “If you have a chance to correct a narrative, you have to take that chance. You have to try, and especially on such a significant level as this story is to the Native community.”
Camargo says there was “an energy that I felt just being around this story that was very mercurial, very tempestuous, very angry, that it hasn’t been told right, or at least tried to be told right; so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The film features a large Native American cast, including Martin Sensmeier (“The Magnificent Seven”) as Willie Boy; Mainei Kinimaka (“See”) as Carlota; and Lily Gladstone (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) and Zahn McClarnon (“Reservation Dogs”) as Carlota’s parents. Momoa also appears in the film.
Shooting on location in Joshua Tree was essential for Camargo. The unique landscape is an essential character in the story “because it’s so sculptural and monumental around here — and that becomes a sort of adversary at times, and sometimes a collaborator, as support. So the land for me was very necessary.”
While it has all the trappings of a classic Western, Camargo says it’s not an action pic but rather “a simple Romeo and Juliet story” and a paean to the land and its people.
“This is really an arthouse Western that Jason wanted to make in a lyrical, poetic way – a reflection of this narrative and the desert and the home he loves so much, so it’s as much a love story between these two people as it is a love story for Jason and myself about the land itself.”
Those qualities made the film the ideal opener for the Pioneertown festival.
“The mission of the Pioneertown Int’l Film Festival is that we aim to preserve, and to re-engage, the history and the stories of the frontier, whether it be through cinema, art or music,” says festival founder and filmmaker Julian T. Pinder. “We’re not only proud to premiere ‘The Last Manhunt’ on the merits of it being a great film, but we also feel that the re-imagining of the Western genre from an Indigenous perspective is a very profound and powerful step in the right direction.”
Momoa and Sibbett are taking a similar approach on their upcoming Apple series “Chief of War,” about the history of Hawaii from the point of view of its Indigenous people.