Running Brave (1983)

Director: D.S. Everett

Stars: Robby Benson, Pat Hingle, Claudia Cron

Release Company: Buena Vista

MPAA Rating: PG

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D.S. Everett: Running Brave


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"Your life is a gift from the Creator. Your gift back to the Creator is what you do with your life."

Billy Mills

Following a long tradition of sports formula movies, Running Brave deserves more recognition than it's received over the years because it occasionally hits the mark on racism towards Native Americans while inevitably climaxing at the historic 1964 Olympic 10,000 meter race. The only reason I even know about the film is because I began teaching at Tuba City High School on the Navajo reservation, and our X-country team was on a run of 13 straight state championships and national recognition. The coaches showed Running Brave numerous times during the season, and it was the talk of the school.

Because the film is based on the true story of half-Sioux, half-white Billy Mills, the story becomes a powerful force for Native Americans in particular. There really is a special feeling, a sense of pride that occurs within Native Americans when one of their own succeeds in the white world, and Running Brave captures this well in its final shot—among the crowd greeting the Olympic champion is a silent, Sioux elder. Without speaking both Mills' and the man's eyes meet, and they both realize the greater significance of the victory—what it means to Native people.

Outside of speaking for Disney's animated Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Running Brave arguably ranks as Robbie Benson's finest screen performance (not that there's any great competition). Deeply tanned or wearing effective make-up, Benson even looks credibly Native American, and joins in with Pow Wow singers quite naturally at one point in the film. The film begins on the Lakota reservation at a high school cross-country meet, where Kansas track coach Bill Easton (Pat Hingle) observes Mills win the event.

Easton is not a happy camper to learn Mills is an Indian because he's had too many experiences with Indians who quit for one reason or another—to return to the reservation to pump gas or turn to alcohol. Kansas has a tradition of strong track teams, and he wants winners who will do things his way. Being half-white and swearing that he won't quit, Mills makes an impression on the coach—that and kicking some major ass during the race.

So Mills finds himself on the virtually all-white University of Kansas campus, where he faces initial racial prejudice on the track team, at a fraternity, and with the campus security. This proves to be a double-edged sword since Mills is uncomfortable and overly sensitive to racism, but he ends up being roommates with Dennis (Jeff McCracken), the team member he had an altercation with.

Henry Bean and Shirl Hendryx script a few flashbacks to provide Mills' back story to show how his adopted brother Frank taught him "what to do with his legs" and how his father showed him how to use his heart. The will to win and the importance of succeeding in the white man's world has been ingrained in the young runner, and the emotional ties to the reservation home and family are clearly defined.

Issues about the coach's motivation are raised as well. He finds that Mills' primary running dream is to compete on the Olympic team, but does he genuinely want to help his star runner or just ride his back to the NCAA national championship? Why does he insist that Mills run ahead of the pack instead of coming from behind with a finishing kick, like world record holder Ron Clarke? Not only are questions raised about the coach, but corporate America is called to task as well—insurance executives and automobile dealerships demonstrate interest in using Mills when he's a winning athlete, but will Mills sell out?

Anyone familiar with the Billy Mills story knows the eventual outcome at the Tokyo Olympics (see the documentary Tokyo Olympiad) —Mills was such an underdog that he had to borrow running shoes since he didn't figure to be a factor in the 10,000-meter. The race itself is staged well and follows the actual events—even the incredible final finish mirrors archive footage. Predictably the formula follows the sports movie pattern of establishing the dream, facing struggles, culminating in final victory, but to its credit Running Brave develops other themes along the way.

Benson and the other main characters won't get raves for the stilted acting, but they hit their marks well enough to carry the story. Some of the most authentic moments occur with minor characters and events. The singing of "Tom Dooley" at the fraternity party and the "lockout time" at the girls' dormitory brings back nostalgic memories for boomers, and the scenes on the Sioux reservation lend authenticity seven years before Dances with Wolves. Native Americans have a tremendous sense of humor, and the grandfather's crack about young Billy's white man brush hair-cut rings true: "A man should look like a man—not a porcupine!"

Later in the film family members, notably including Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal (both in Dances with Wolves and many other films), visit Mills and fiancee but leave very abruptly. Although exaggerated, modern Native Americans often feel uncomfortable in the alien world of the white man—as Greene says, "We don't belong here." The film also deals with this more extensively with Mills' discomfort at the University of Kansas, contrasting with his ease back home.

No one will mistake Running Brave for a great work of art, but it's an overlooked film that young people should see. The film serves as an excellent introduction to a true success story, doing so without an overabundance of sentiment. No fictional hero, Billy Mills is a flesh and blood human being with a good heart—he's recorded his thoughts and recollected his upbringing in a book titled Wokini: A Lakota Journey to Happiness & Self-Understanding. He also travels the country, especially addressing young Native Americans and challenging them as his father once did:
"I was constantly told and challenged to live my life as a warrior. As a warrior, you assume responsibility for yourself. The warrior humbles himself. And the warrior learns the power of giving."

 


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