LOS ANGELES, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- Ron Howard's first film since winning the Best Director Oscar for "A Beautiful Mind" is the vastly different "The Missing." It's a highly fictionalized and strangely stylized account of the Apache shaman Geronimo's 1885 marauding in New Mexico, told from the point of view of his white and Indian victims.
"The Missing" resembles "Ulzana's Raid," the 1972 Burt Lancaster film that was one of several brutal but realistic films (such as 1970's "A Man Called Horse") made during a brief period of balance in the depiction of Native Americans, falling between the earlier era's anti-Indian prejudice and the present day's happy-clappy New Age nonsense.
Howard is a misunderstood figure because he straddles the two main camps of directors: the endlessly written about Brand Names vs. the professionally respected but little discussed Hardworking Craftsmen.
Strategies for becoming a Brand Name include:
-- Make only a handful of movies, like Orson Welles. The prolific novelist John Updike once complained that infertile writers like T.S. Eliot, whose collected works of poetry and drama can fit into one volume, are often overrated. Why? Their work is easier to discuss with others because everybody has read the same few poems. The same is true for a Welles or a Stanley Kubrick.
-- Keep making the same kind of movie over and over, like Alfred Hitchcock.
-- Market yourself as much as your movies, like Quentin Tarantino. Thus, "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" is declared in its own credits to be "The 4th Quentin Tarantino Film" (which raises the question of what "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" will be called -- "The 4.5th Quentin Tarantino Film?").
In contrast, the Hardworking Craftsman director makes a lot of movies in a lot of genres. They don't all work, but enough do that they add up to a résumé too complex for critics to conveniently characterize. For example, William Wyler earned a record 12 Oscar nominations (winning for "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Ben-Hur," and "Mrs. Miniver"). Yet, today, Wyler is often confused with the second most-nominated director, Billy Wilder ("Some Like It Hot").
Ron Howard is a Brand Name because he starred in two of the most popular sitcoms of all time ("The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days"). Yet, his career is the epitome of the quasi-anonymous Hardworking Craftsman. "The Missing" is his 15th movie since his first hit, 1982's "Night Shift."
Howard's had his flops, but he's made a long list of fine films in a wide variety of manners, such as "Splash" and "Parenthood." Perhaps he peaked with that exemplar of Big American Moviemaking, "Apollo 13," in which he pulled off one of the most audacious gambits ever: filming in genuine weightlessness. He did it by taking his stars and crew on more than 500 stomach-churning parabolic rides on NASA's "Vomit Comet" space simulator jet.
Howard has made a giant hit out of both a Dr. Seuss poem ("The Grinch") -- and if you think that's easy, you deserve to see "The Cat in the Hat" -- and a mathematician's biography ("A Beautiful Mind").
In "The Missing," unfortunately, Howard tries to stuff too many genres into one film. It's reminiscent of that old "Saturday Night Live" fake ad: "It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!"
"The Missing" is a western, but it's also a family drama about the conflict between an embittered widow (played by an alarmingly skinny, almost blade-like Cate Blanchett) and her artist father (played by Tommie Lee Jones) who selfishly abandoned his family decades before to roam with the Indians.
A horse-mounted "biker gang" of renegade Apaches led by a demonic shaman kidnap Blanchett's daughter to sell her in Mexico as a sex slave. Reluctantly, Blanchett enlists her father's Apache-trained tracking skills to hunt them down.
Most oddly, "The Missing" is also a horror movie about the dark side of Native American spirituality. The film is rated "R" for gruesome scenes of Apache torture and ritual mutilation. Blanchett finds her boyfriend's charred corpse strung up over a campfire where the Indians slowly roasted him to death. Later, when a photographer snaps the Apache leader's picture, the shaman gets his soul back by tearing out the man's heart.
Howard augments the queasiness of these grisly incidents by using unnaturally colored filters to drain the life from his landscapes. The result, though, is that the "The Missing" achieves much of the distastefulness of a horror flick, but without many of the chills.
Still, I have to admire Howard for ignoring the bogus and condescending fantasies about American Indian culture rampant in our society today. Native Americans have suffered enough without having the memory of their warriors emasculated by self-absorbed eco-feminists into sappy symbols.
Geronimo was a cruel man, but he was every inch a man.