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In the War Wagon, Howard Keel who plays Levi Walking Bear, derides his fellow Indians constantly saying how he's learned to live in the white man's world and beat him at his own game. When the Legends Die is a film about a contemporary Ute Indian who tries to do just that and the effect it has on him.
Fredric Forrest plays Thomas Black Bull, a young Ute who we first meet as a really backward kid, no education or social skills. After he sees him riding a bucking horse, old rodeo hand Richard Widmark takes him on as a protégé and young Mr. Black Bull becomes a champion saddle bronco rider.
It's a profession and skill that he is beating the white man at his own game and making some good money in the process. It offends his sense of honor though, when Widmark now asks him to lose a few contests to make the odds better when he rides for real. It's the start of a break in their relationship.
Fredric Forrest has had a strange career. When the Legends Die was his third film after two bit roles, this one gave him the billing of "introducing Fredric Forrest." This was the start of a whole bunch of times when good reviews prompted critics to say that Forrest was about to break out and become a big star. It never really happened for him though. Nevertheless his stoic performance as Thomas Black Bull turning into Killer Tom Black is accomplished a lot with some very good closeups on facial expressions. They say more than dialog with a good player.
Richard Widmark plays Red Dillon, the old rodeo cowboy who becomes Forrest's manager/trainer. A whole lot like the way Robert Mitchum takes on young Arthur Kennedy in The Lusty Men. But we have a far bigger cultural and generational gap than there was in The Lusty Men. Despite his good old boy upbringing, Widmark develops a real affection for Forrest so their break up is pretty painful on both sides. Widmark in his performance as Dillon shows a seamier side of rodeo than other films about the sport never have. Of course Mr. Widmark shows it with style.
The film is about how Thomas Black Bull resolves all the conflicts within him. If you see the film I think you'll agree he does it in the best way any of us could.
This review is dedicated to young Ryan Dirteater of the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma and fast rising star of the Professional Bull Riders. Let Ryan avoid the pitfalls that Frederic Forrest has in this film.
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