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“Woman Walks Ahead” stumbles between fact and fiction

Updated: Nov 9, 2022


Jessica Chastain, as Swiss-American artist Catherine Weldon, travels west to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. She's abandoned along with her belongings when the train drops her off in North Dakota.

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Blu-ray, DVD, Digital copy; 2017; R for brief violence and profanity; streaming via Amazon Prime & Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: “A Making-of Story with Director Susanna White”

SUSANNA WHITE, director of “Woman Walks Ahead,” the story of Swiss-American artist Caroline Weldon, who painted portraits of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, wanted to make a romance.

“I said to my agent, what I’m looking for is an epic love story,” she says in “A Making-of Story,” one of three bonus features on Lionsgate’s Blu-ray presentation. “As it turned out it’s more a story of connection between two people than an epic love story, but I fell in love with it.”

It might not be “epic,” but it’s certain fiction trumped fact in the film starring Jessica Chastain, whose character was renamed Catherine Weldon, and the powerfully handsome Michael Greyeyes as Sitting Bull. You don’t have to be a historian or Western fan to spot the … let’s call it “bull.”

(1) Catherine Weldon heads west by train. (2) New Mexico stands in for North Dakota. (3) Catherine (Chastain) is confronted by the graves of the soldiers who died during the battle at Little Bighorn. (4) Chaska (Chaska Spencer) tries to discourage Catherine from seeking out Sitting Bull.

In real life, Weldon was a feisty divorcee, with a child from an affair. She was an active member of NIDA, the National Indian Defense Association, a supporter of Native American rights, who communicated with Sitting Bull before heading west. Their letters were lost, according to an article from Time, but are referenced in Weldon’s other writing. “Woman Walks Ahead” tells a far different story.

“[Writer] Steve Knight actually came up with the idea about 14 years ago. He had a fascination with Native American history ever since he was at school,” White says. She goes into more detail in the feature commentary.

The screen version says Weldon went West to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. It seems she’s a widow, and there’s no child. As she confronts the Indians’ living conditions, the white’s hatred of them, and political machinations, Weldon begins to champion Native Americans. She is fascinated by Sitting Bull, and he with her. “It’s a universal story of human connection. Two people without a voice giving each other hope,” White says.

(1) Sitting Bull leads Catherine to an isolated teepee for his portrait session. (2) Canadian actor Michael Greyeyes (Plains Cree) from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation portrays Sitting Bull. (3) Catherine learns Sitting Bull is also an artist. (4) A detail from Sitting Bull's autobiographical paintings shows the battle at Little Bighorn.

The chemistry is strong. Both Chastain and Greyeyes are gorgeous onscreen. They look wonderful together against the mountains and plains of New Mexico. Sexual tension dominates the story, and it’s frustrating when nothing happens. It seems neither White nor Knight could go that far. Or perhaps Knight, who loves his history, kept the director in check. As it stands, “Woman Walks Ahead” is incomplete and unsatisfying as either romance or history.

Even so, the film looks very good in its 1080p transfer. Color is rich and naturally bold, especially in exterior shots. Detail is sharp from costumes to settings. Ethnically diverse complexions look authentic.

“I felt that the land should be a character in the film,” White says. “It was very important to me that I created with Mike Eley, the cinematographer, the spiritual sense of the landscape and time. We made the decision to shoot in New Mexico where I knew we would get incredible light and incredible skies.”

“We got amazing moments. There’s a moment when Sitting Bull tells Catherine he’s going to die and we suddenly got a streak of lightning [in the sky]. People probably think that’s CGI, but It actually happened. We went for Take 2 – we get another streak of lightning.” – Susanna White, director

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack clearly delivers dialogue throughout, with some immersive ambient sound in outdoor scenes. Effects are generally low key, save for a quick glimpse of the Ghost Dance ceremony. While Native Americans hoped it would draw their people together, whites saw it as a threat. In their eyes, ceremonial dancing led to war. Their fear and greed led to Sitting Bull’s assassination and the tragedy of Wounded Knee. George Fenton of “Groundhog Day” and “You’ve Got Mail” composed the original score.

Deleted and extended scenes are included with the making-of and director’s commentary.

(1) Catherine is ambushed and beaten in town for her Native American sympathies. (2) James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds) and his Native American wife, Susan (Rulan Tangen). As the "Indian Agent," McLaughlin is tasked with managing the tribes. (3) Native Americans line up to receive rations at Fort Yates.

“Woman Walks Ahead” isn’t the first to twist facts and push romance ahead of history on film. Look at “Braveheart” or “Titanic,” amazing hits that remain popular. Perhaps if White and Knight told a more honest story or gone full-tilt romance the film would have been a success.

Weldon was “just a tiny footnote in the history books,” White tells us. One of the few things documented about their relationship is Sitting Bull gave Weldon the name, Woman Walks Ahead. He also proposed marriage to her, White says. Still, history says their differences became so great he banished her from the reservation. So much for romance.

— Kay Reynolds

(1&2) Sitting Bull (Greyeyes) arrives in full ceremonial dress to argue against a new treaty. (3) Sitting Bull and Catherine against the sky of New Mexico. (4) Sitting Bull tells Catherine that his death is near. (5) Catherine shows Sitting Bull his portrait. In real life, Swiss-American artist Caroline Weldon created four portraits of Chief Sitting Bull. (6) Sitting Bull says "goodbye" to Catherine.




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