“The best and toughest western since Unforgiven”
Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune
“Ron Howard, the master sentimentalist, has made a dark, menacing film, a lean and disturbing western, that goes where no Ron Howard film has gone before.”
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
“Ron Howard’s startlingly moving drama about a broken family’s desperate search for its kidnapped daughter resurrects much of what we remember in some of the greatest westerns.”
Phil Villareal, Arizona Daily Star
“This is, I think, Ron Howard’s finest film, a work of complexity and maturity, underpinned by a wry humour.”
Phillip French, The Guardian
“In twenty years it will probably be regarded as Ron Howard’s finest film.”
Nev Pierce, BBC
Good movie westerns these days may be too few and far between, but Ron Howard’s “The Missing” is almost a great one. Set in 1885 New Mexico, this dark, bristling adventure stars Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones as two unlikely allies: a tough, grieving frontier mother and her despised, long-absent father, joined on a hunt for the woman’s missing teenage daughter who has been kidnapped by a band of renegade Apache scouts for sale into slavery in Mexico.
Maggie Gilkeson and Samuel Jones are richer, deeper and more memorable than the people we usually see in adventure movies. Maggie, wonderfully played by Blanchett, is a hard, embittered frontierswoman who rules the roost on her isolated ranch, living with her lover Brake (Aaron Eckhart) and her teenage and preteen daughters Lilly and Dot (Evan Rachel Wood of “Thirteen” and Jenna Boyd). Samuel is the man who made her bitter, the father who left her family 20 years ago to live among the Indians and now turns up snakebit and needing care. But, soon after, when Brake is killed and Lilly taken, Maggie turns to Samuel for help in tracking down and rescuing her daughter.
The first part of the movie is packed with horrific images evoking something we rarely saw in the first golden heyday of the movie western (1940–62): a west that is vast, cold, lonely and full of danger. As the tiny posse—Maggie, Samuel and Dot—heads south the picture moves from a landscape strikingly wintry and violent, full of black trees and glowering skies, to an inferno of rock-strewn deserts and towering hills. It’s the deadly site of the inevitable final showdown with the outlaw leader and Apache witch Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig).
But, though the images of “The Missing” are majestic, it’s the characters that make the film so unusual: not just Maggie and Samuel, but selfish daughter Lilly, the terrifying and supernaturally gifted Pesh-Chidin and his mixed-race gang, Samuel’s old Apache friend Kayitah (Jay Tavare) and, in a juicy cameo, Val Kilmer as U.S. Cavalry Lt. Ducharme, whose troop becomes almost tragically involved in the hunt.
The material of “The Missing,” based on the 1995 novel “The Last Ride” by Thomas Eidson, is very reminiscent of John Ford’s “The Searchers,” the 1956 western classic with John Wayne as the Civil War veteran and loner Ethan Edwards, obsessively hunting the Comanches who stole his niece Debbie. The movie is regarded by many (including me) as the greatest of all movie westerns. But, despite some direct references (including Maggie’s last speech), “The Missing” is no slavish homage. Indeed, it’s a picture that often seems to be a critical, modernist response to “The Searchers”: a feminist, pro-Native American variation on the theme.
Blanchett’s Maggie, like her recent portrait of Veronica Guerin, is almost furiously self-sufficient, brave and driven, frontierswoman as avenging angel. Jones’ Samuel, who gains his wisdom from his shifting position between the white and Apache worlds, is almost as powerful and mysterious as Wayne’s Ethan and more realistically drawn. Schweig, the excellent part-Inuit actor who played Uncas in Michael Mann's exciting 1992 film “The Last of the Mohicans,” is a scarier villain than “The Searchers’” Scar, a bottomlessly evil, hideously pocked nemesis with terrifying supernatural gifts.
A good part of the contemporary audience, people who like “The Searchers” well enough but find parts of it old-fashioned and corny, will probably and mistakenly prefer “The Missing,” a movie more respectful of Native American culture, more even-handed and modern in portraying women and more skeptical of manifest destiny, machismo and the myth of the frontier. Just as Kevin Costner’s recent “Open Range” tried, not too successfully, to update the myth of the range wars, “The Missing” looks at the myths of the Indian Wars and their aftermath with fresh eyes.
The movie is thrilling and beautiful, only really stumbling in its last action scenes, when Howard tries the kind of battle in the rocks once easily handled in the ’50s by an Anthony Mann or Raoul Walsh. But here, Howard muffs it a little; it’s slightly scrappier and more incoherent. Yet, whatever the slight flaws, this film is also a showcase for two consummate actors, Blanchett and Jones, giving performances that are among the most indelible of the year. And “The Missing” itself, defying Howard’s old “feel-good” reputation as much as “A Beautiful Mind” did, is the best and toughest western since “Unforgiven.”
Flesh-and-blood fury in “The Missing”
Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett as estranged father and daughter raise the stakes in Ron Howard’s dark depiction of the Old West.
What’s missing, gone, vanished almost (but not quite) without a trace from “The Missing” is the Ron Howard most of America has come to know and love. The master sentimentalist has made a dark, menacing film, a lean and disturbing western with some modern subtexts that goes where no Ron Howard film has gone before.
A change like that doesn’t come without expert assistance, and Howard got it from his two stars, Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett. They play Samuel Jones and Maggie Gilkeson, a savagely estranged father and daughter who’ve not seen each other for decades but have to jointly face a life-or-death threat.
The combined intensity of these two performances obliterates objections and raises the stakes in what might otherwise have been a standard western. It’s powerful enough to create its own reality, and whenever “The Missing” threatens to get sentimental around the edges, the fused energy of their cold fury is simply too compelling to allow that to happen. No film will be going soft while they’re in the neighborhood — no film would dare.
Jones has made a career out of these implacable roles, most notably in “The Fugitive,” and as he’s aged into a face so lined it would scare Botox, he’s lost none of his innate aura of menace and danger, the sense that he would as soon kill someone as look at them.
Which makes it all the more thrilling that Blanchett, as gifted an actress as is working today, is his match and more in barely controlled rage. Capable of rising to whatever challenges her screen appearances demand, Blanchett brings the kind of deep and biting anger to her part that only Sean Penn in “Mystic River” has matched this year. Each word she directs at Jones’ character is a whiplash intended to cut to the bone, and cut it does.
Those words also come from an unlikely source, Ken Kaufman, whose previous credits include “Space Cowboys” and “Muppets From Space.” He’s adapted “The Last Ride,” a novel by Thomas Eidson, that focuses on the kidnapping of Maggie’s eldest daughter, Lilly (“Thirteen’s” Evan Rachel Wood) by a band of Apaches and white outlaws who intend to sell her in Mexico to the highest bidder.
Here is the New Mexico territory, 1885, a place no less godforsaken because modern inventions like the telegram have made an appearance. Working with talented cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who makes this part of the world look epic, unexpected and forbidding, Howard has visualized the West as an especially pitiless place where bad things routinely happen and to do something stupid is to risk having someone die.
No western is complete without a bad man, and one of the things that make “The Missing” both effective and particularly modern is the nature of its villain. He’s nameless in the film, though Samuel Jones refers to him by the Spanish “brujo” and the credits call him Pesh-Chidin, an Apache term that means the same thing: witch.
Today’s audiences, aware of alternative forms of spirituality, will be more receptive to the presence of a Native American shaman, a powerful sorcerer capable of clouding men’s minds. Convincingly played by a heavily made up Eric Schweig, the scarred and creepy brujo, whose murderous handiwork makes everyone who sees it, audiences included, squirm, is a disturbing, distinctive bad guy who proves to be very much a match for the forces of good.
Before any of this can happen, Samuel Jones has to come back into the life of his daughter, who lives on a small cattle ranch with her daughters and her ranch hand/boyfriend, played by Aaron Eckhart.
An outcast from the white world who’s lived among the Apache for decades and speaks the Chiricahua dialect perfectly (the actor learned it, subtitles translate it), Samuel Jones wants to reconcile with the daughter he abandoned and the now-dead wife whose death the daughter thinks he caused. Maggie furiously wants nothing to do with him, letting him know “what you’ve done, you can’t undo.”
But when her daughter is kidnapped, people are killed in horrific ways (don’t ask) and the Val Kilmer-led cavalry proves ineffective, Maggie understands that as much as she detests her father, his knowledge of Apache ways makes him her best chance to get Lilly back.
Though this rescue-the-white-girl scenario inevitably echoes John Ford’s classic “The Searchers,” it is more interested in the working out of family relationships, and that includes 10-year-old daughter Dot (well played by Jenna Boyd), a mini-termagant who is very much her mother’s daughter. In fact, one of the pleasures of this film is to view father, daughter and granddaughter as a set matched in willfulness.
What stays with you most about “The Missing,” finally, is the quality of Blanchett’s performance. With a rawboned, angular face that makes her look at home on the land, she experiences every one of the film’s variety of emotions right up to the hilt, and the unnerving rawness of her feelings combined with the implacability of her resolve will put your heart right in your throat. You can’t ask for any more from an actress than that.
Reports of the Western’s demise were greatly accelerated
Maybe the genre is indeed on its way out, as media pundits have declared the past few years, but with solid entries such as “Open Range” and a brilliant one like “The Missing,” perhaps the cinematic days of cowboy hats and dusty prairie searches are just getting started.
Ron Howard’s startlingly moving drama about a broken family’s desperate search for its kidnapped daughter resurrects much of what we remember in some of the greatest Westerns, with themes that resonate beyond the stretching browns of the unforgiving desert plains and define the human condition.
“The Missing,” delivered with Howard’s increasingly personal voice – this is one mainstream director who seems to be getting less Hollywood with each film he makes – gives us the obsessive hunt of “The Searchers,” the uneasy alliances of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and the round ’em up and move ’em out frontier justice of “Shane.”
Even with all these familiar feelings, “The Missing,” adapted from the Thomas Eidson novel “The Last Ride,” seems fresh and alive – the best stories always do.
Cate Blanchett shoulders much of the load as Maggie, a hardscrabble single mother who scratches out a career as a healer north of the Mexican border in 1885. Her daughters are teenage debutante Lily (Evan Rachel Wood), who dreams of a future of phonographs and formal dances; and grade-school-age Dot (Jenna Boyd), a gruff, stubborn facsimile of her mama. The ladies’ world is shaken when a mysterious Indian named Samuel (Tommy Lee Jones) happens upon the homestead.
This Indian, it turns out, was born a white man. Samuel is Maggie’s father, and he walked out on his family 20 years ago to live among the Chiricahua. Maggie deeply resents her father and refuses to entertain his overtures at making amends. The father and daughter are reunited, though, when a band of Apaches strikes through the lawless land and runs away with one of Maggie’s daughters. Maggie’s love for her child is so deep, it overcomes her contempt for Samuel, who claims to be able to track the captors.
The chase is violent and treacherous, but made ever more urgent when Maggie learns that the Apaches intend to sell her daughter into prostitution south of the border. Just as harrowing is Maggie’s parallel internal journey to forgive her father, which Blanchett’s tortured eyes keep us very much aware of.
Blanchett’s is a standout showing among phenomenal performances. Jones unleashes his full range of talent on a morally ambiguous character desperate to redeem his soul. Wood, who was so impressive as the lead in “Thirteen,” makes her heart-bruising mark with limited screen time here.
“The Missing” takes your typical cowboys vs. Indians tale and turns it on its ear. The villains are indeed Apaches, but a midfilm twist reveals several deeper levels to the abductors’ origins and motivations. Deep respect for all cultures is given, without making the world seem as racially revisionist as the movie “Unforgiven” did.
Thrilling and haunting,this newest Western is an engulfing ride. It pumps the same lifeblood into a seemingly dying genre as “Chicago” did into the musical last year. And “The Missing” may well be deserving of the same awards.
New lessons from the Old West
In his finest film to date, Ron Howard breathes invigorating life into a classic Hollywood genre
One swallow doesn’t make a summer and four steers don’t make a cattle drive. So the appearance of four westerns over a couple of months - Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain last December, Ron Howard’s The Missing this week, Kevin Costner’s Open Range next month, and John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo in April - should not be seen as a renaissance of the genre. But they are an encouraging sign that some filmmakers recognise the continuing vitality of what that great historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr once called ‘America’s distinctive contribution to the cinema’.
Shortly before giving up acting for direction in the mid-Seventies, Ron Howard appeared in a couple of westerns as a wide-eyed adolescent who hero-worships gunfighters - the bad guy, Lee Marvin, in The Spikes Gang and the good guy, John Wayne, in The Shootist. Returning to the genre at the age of 50, Howard must have remembered this experience, because The Missing pursues themes from those earlier movies and is in a classic tradition.
In his celebrated 1954 essay, ‘The Gentleman With a Gun’, Robert Warshow wrote that westerns have turned popular audiences into connoisseurs who can spot and take pleasure in very small changes in the manipulation of familiar material, and The Missing is a series of variations on a cycle of movies from the Fifties and Sixties dealing with women taken into captivity by Native Americans and the attempts to rescue them.
The most famous is John Ford’s perennially influential The Searchers, and Howard and his screenwriter, Ken Kaufman, pay homage to it by concluding their movie with the line ‘Let’s go home’, the words spoken by John Wayne to his niece when he frees her after years as a prisoner of Comanches.
Set in New Mexico in 1885, the year before the final surrender of Geronimo, The Missing introduces its heroine Maggie (Cate Blanchett) with a close-up of her sitting in half-darkness. We think this is the interior of a stagecoach or a ranch house. It is, in fact, a privy. The film continues to surprise us with clever twists in the plot. In the opening scenes, a mysterious stranger called Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) turns up at the small ranch where Maggie, a widow with two daughters, ekes out a living raising cattle with her cowhand lover (Aaron Eckhart) by working as an unqualified doctor and pharmacist.
Initially taken for an Native American, Jones turns out to be Maggie’s father, a laconic drifter of mystical bent who quit his family to live among the Apaches. The presence of her new-found grandfather thrills Maggie’s younger daughter, Dot (Jenna Boyd), who’s very much at home on the range.
The older daughter, Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood), however, wants to leave the frontier for city life east of the Mississippi. She loathes this apparently uncivilised man. Besides, she’s in a bad mood because she’s having a difficult period, the first time, I believe, that this condition has been mentioned in a western.
Suddenly, the film’s romantic interest is snuffed out as brutally and suddenly as Janet Leigh is dispatched in Psycho, and Lilly is kidnapped by a ruthless band of renegade Apaches who intend to take her across the border and sell her in Mexico. Maggie, her trail-wise father and the spunky little Dot set out in pursuit. The journey begins in the snowy north of the state and finishes in the deserts and mountains of the south. There’s a frightening flash flood that nearly sweeps them away, and a succession of violent encounters as the tables are turned and the pursuers become the hunted. Every incident is a test of some kind and the journey is an occasion for redemption and reconciliation.
The film’s West, its social detail vividly presented, its awesome landscape memorably captured by the cinematographer Salvatore Totino, is a strange, confused place. An itinerant photographer is among the captives and the Apache marauders’ leader, a witch doctor of ferocious mien who has a deep hatred of white men, has a necklace of framed photographs around his neck like a fetish. A gramophone salesman enchants the children of the local town with his toy, and a recently installed telegraph brings misinformation about the Apaches’ movements.
The town marshal won’t help in the rescue mission because he’s too busy with a visiting fair. A cavalry company is of no assistance because it’s going in the wrong direction. Moreover, its commander has no control over his racist rabble who are more interested in looting ranches than chasing Apaches.
At the centre of the movie is a clash of cultures - of Christianity and Indian beliefs, of European medicine and tribal healing. But the politically correct sanctimoniousness found in the treatment of Native Americans in numerous liberal westerns of the Fifties is not present here. We are shown the good and bad aspects of both cultures and it is Maggie’s father who mediates between the two worlds.
Blanchett and Jones are both excellent. His face speaks of inner experiences, his scarred body of desperate encounters. She looks as if she’s endured freezing winters and scorching summers and her hands bear witness to a life of toil. Jenna Boyd is impressively tough as Dot, but she’s not sentimentalised, and both she and her older sister make mistakes that have disastrous consequences.
This is, I think, Howard’s finest film, a work of complexity and maturity, underpinned by a wry humour. There is also that rare thing, a restrained score by James Horner. All westerns, intentionally or not, throw light on the times in which they are made and The Missing illuminates and allegorises the America of this new century.
The Missing (2004)
Rich, tense and exciting, The Missing works as both a gripping thriller and lovingly-made western. Cate Blanchett is exceptional as a mother-of-two eking out an existence in the Old West, when her long-estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) appears. After years living with Indians, he’s initially unwelcome, but becomes essential when Maggie must rescue her kidnapped daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) from renegade Apaches hoping to sell her as a slave. Guilt, family and faith are explored, as their trek brings them closer together.
Riding in the hoofprints of John Ford’s The Searchers, The Missing is neither as brave or uncompromising as the classic John Wayne western. Few films are. But A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard acted alongside the iconic cowboy in his final film, The Shootist, and this is a stately, old-fashioned effort in that tradition. If you hate horse operas, you’re not likely to like it – although it’s at least as taut as Howard’s kidnap thriller Ransom, and is unusual in having a strong role for a woman, which Blanchett executes like Katharine Hepburn reborn.
Blanchett is quite brilliant
By turns bitter, desperate, pained-yet-persevering, she is quite brilliant – her meeting with Jones crackling with an energy and anger that in a wiser world would unquestionably win an Oscar. Jones is no slouch, his eyes carrying the weight and regret of someone who believes, “There’s nothing a man can do to protect his family from himself.” Aaron Eckhart is excellent as Blanchett’s bit of stuff, while, as her second child, Jenna Boyd gives a performance of raw intensity all the more astonishing because she’s ten.
There are snipable elements – a never-worrying flash flood; an eagle guiding Jones to safety – but the action is executed with efficient brutality, there is genuine, hide-your-eyes menace to Eric Schweig’s villain, and the photography is stunning. Westerns are almost inherently unfashionable and this hasn’t fared especially well with US critics or audiences. But in 20 years it will probably be regarded as Howard’s finest film. Only then will The Missing be found.
Apaches Savor Language Once ‘Missing’
Ron Howard Film Spurs Hope That Mescalero Residents Will Retain Traditions, Despite Influence of Pop Culture
Tommy Lee Jones speaking Apache? Word swept through the Mescalero reservation like an early winter wind.
Not only Jones but many characters in the Ron Howard film, The Missing, speak the Chiricahua dialect of Apache, and most adult Apaches in the audiences have said they could understand every word.
The children, who couldn’t, suddenly wished they could.
That’s what Mescalero Councilman Berle Kanseah and Chiricahua linguist Elbys Hugar intended as technical advisers for The Missing, a tough tale of 19th century frontier life starring Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett.
The 21st century – television, popular culture – is killing minority cultures, starting with language, Kanseah said.
“There’s a generation gap that’s growing,” he said, suggesting Apaches aren’t the only ones facing it. “We need to enforce the home and not lose our way of life, which is our language.”
Hugar, a great-granddaughter of Cochise – who became principal chief of the Apaches in the late 1860s – addressed the cast before shooting. Co-star Jay Tavere, a White Mountain Apache, recalled: “This is the first thing that Elbys said to us: ‘This is more than a movie – this is for the whole Apache nation.’”
It was the first film that any of them could remember in which Apache was spoken well enough on screen to be understood. Usually, Westerns were dubbed in Navajo, a related language, said supporting actor Steve Reevis, a Montana Blackfoot who has worked several films but never spoke Apache before The Missing.
The film is set in southwestern New Mexico in 1885, just as the last of the Apache conflict was ending. Jones’ granddaughter – Blanchett’s daughter – is abducted by a ragged band of Indians and whites who sell women into slavery in Mexico.
New Mexico college student and rodeo competitor Yolanda Nez, a Navajo, plays a captive who is Apache. Her father, Tavere, and Jones set out to keep the slavers from reaching Mexico.
The slavers are led by a brujo, a medicine man gone bad, played by Eric Schweig. Combat between Jones and Tavere and Schweig is inevitable.
The border slave trade is historically factual, producer Daniel Ostroff said.
University of New Mexico historian Paul Hutton, who also consulted on the film, concurred. “Indeed people were being kidnapped all the time,” Hutton said Monday.
Apaches appreciate the film for showing them as they were – the good and the bad, family-oriented, generous, faithful to their religion and good-humored. The brujo played by Schweig is not intended to be Apache, though he speaks Apache, the producers say.
Many Apaches have gone back two and three times to see The Missing, Kanseah said. The producers gave a screening for 500 Mescalero students in Alamogordo last month, and the tribe has been busing students to theaters in nearby Ruidoso. Two more screenings were held here Sunday for hundreds more students from several tribes who attend Santa Fe Indian School and other tribal schools in the surrounding area.
“It made me feel proud,” said Megan Crespin, 8, a third-grader from Santo Domingo School. Her tribal name is Moonlight.
Desiree Aguilar, 14, is a natural-born native speaker, fluent in Keres, the native tongue of Santo Domingo Pueblo. She watched the film with an analytical eye.
“It was very intense,” the ninth-grader said. “It kept you wanting to watch it.”
Kevin Aspaas, 8, a Navajo student, said he liked the hawk that led Tommy Lee Jones back to his family. “I really enjoyed it – it was a scary and cool movie,” he said.
He planned to write a review of it for his class. He said he is learning Navajo and said a few words in his native tongue.
While the last screening played to the students, Kanseah, Nez and Tavere made some comparisons among Navajo and Apache dialects, all of which stem from the Athabaskan root language common to a number of North American tribes.
During the film, even Tommy Lee Jones’ grasp of the language was understandable to Apaches and many Navajos. At one point, Jones says a well-known Apache prayer that ends: “for all good things.”
“He spoke Apache well enough for every Chiricahua in the audience to understand,” said New Mexico State University anthropologist Scott Rushforth, who also consulted on the film and attended several screenings.
But there aren’t that many Chiricahuas left. They were rounded up and sent to Florida in 1886, shunted back to Alabama, Oklahoma and finally to the Mescalero homeland in south-central New Mexico in 1913.
“There are only about 300 people who are fluent in Chiricahua today,” Tavere told the audience Sunday.
Film Not Missing Authenticity
For Jacqueline Bird, Ron Howard’s made-in-New Mexico western “The Missing” represents more than weekend entertainment.
“It does say a lot of our traditional ways,” the Santo Domingo Pueblo resident said. “I like the way it involved the Native Americans.”
Bird and her daughter Gabrielle attended one of two screenings at the James A. Little Theater on Sunday organized for students, parents and faculty of the Santa Fe Indian School.
Producer Daniel Ostroff, along with several of the Native American actors who appeared in the movie, were on hand to tout the film’s authenticity and the potential it represents for Native Americans interested in the film industry.
“It was an extraordinary picture,” Santa Fe Indian School Superintendent Joe Abeyta said after the first screening. “In addition, it’s a realization that Indian students have potential to become part of the industry.”
In “The Missing,” Cate Blanchett stars as a gritty 19th Century frontierswoman who enlists the help of her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) to find her daughter. The girl is one of several kidnapped by a band of renegade Indians, who plan to sell the girls at the Mexican border.
Jay Tavare plays an Apache Indian, who teams up with Blanchett and Jones to rescue the kidnapped girls.
“Ron (Howard) completely shattered stereotypes,” said Tavare, pointing out that both Indians and white characters are heroes and villains in “The Missing.”
“Our film strikes the right balance,” he said. “That’s what I think was ground breaking about it.”
Ostroff says Howard and his crew went to great lengths to portray Native American culture accurately. Mescalero Apache tribal members served as consultants on the film, schooling the actors in Apache customs and language.
“It was important to present an entertaining story but one set in an environment that is authentic,” Ostroff said.
Later, Ostroff told the crowd that Howard was adamant about portraying hardships of Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. Army. The Indian kidnappers in the movie were former U.S. Army scouts.
“We were conscious of the fact that these bad guys were products of the U.S. Army,” Ostroff said.
Before the movie, excited students crowded around “The Missing” actors, who signed autographs and handed out posters. After the screening, the stars answered questions and offered advice to the audience.
“Anything’s possible,” said Yolanda Nez, a college student from Farmington, NM, who made her acting debut in the film. “You just have to go out there and try it.”
N.M.’s landscape takes a star turn in flick
From a haunted ranch named for screaming spirits to a valley threatened by volcanic eruption, the many faces of New Mexico might at once enchant and terrify audiences who see “The Missing”.
This split personality also echoes in the characters and themes of Ron Howard’s suspense thriller filmed at eight locations across the state.
“The landscape certainly does portray a character,” Howard says.
In the film, which opened this week, Tommy Lee Jones, who plays a man called Jones, is a one-man army divided — sometimes holding a gun, other times an artist’s pen or pencil — as he tries to save his granddaughter from a twisted mystic who would sell her into slavery.”
Jones, estranged head of a family, abandoned his daughter for an artist’s life painting and self-assimilating 20 years among the Apaches.”
“He’s a well-educated, intelligent man who straddles these two cultures,” Howard says. “He’s this fascinating, impressive, individualistic man, but he also doesn’t really belong anywhere.”
As the movie unfolds in 1885, with the cooling off of the Apache wars, Jones searches for his grand-daughter. No matter how diligent the search, this is no remake of “The Searchers,” Howard says.
In John Ford’s 1956 film, based on an Alan LeMay novel, John Wayne is searching for a niece abducted by Indians.”
“Somebody gets abducted, and that’s about the only similarity,” Howard says. “The Missing” is adapted from another novel, “The Last Ride” by Tom Eidson, and the characters are rich in diversity that is a clear contrast to the predictable Ford-Wayne formula.
Jones, the artist, came West, as did whole colonies of art exiles to paint the cowboys and Indians. Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, Walter Ufer all arrived between the 1880s and the turn of the century. N.C. Wyeth trekked West briefly in 1904. Georgia O’Keeffe came later and settled at Ghost Ranch, on of the locations of “The Missing”.
The ranch is said to have been named for the chilling screams of echoing off canyon walls — some said from witches or tortured spirits, some said from unknown wild beasts. O’Keeffe painted the striated bluffs that now find their way into motion pictures.
Another key location, according to the New Mexico Film Office, was the Valles Caldera, now federal park land, which geologists warn is still a threat to erupt like Mount St. Helens.
A flash flood scene was filmed at the Tino Griego Swimming Pool in Santa Fe.
Other shooting sites were:
· The Bonanza Creek Ranch outside Santa Fe.
· The Cerro Pelon Ranch, formerly known as the Cook Movie Ranch.
· La Cienega, south of Santa Fe.
· Las Golondrinas, south of Santa Fe.
· Zia Pueblos northwest of Albuquerque
Says Howard: “In making a suspense film that takes place primarily outdoors, it was important to use the landscape, primarily in its most threatening kind of way.
“It’s one thing to be alone in a dark alley, an abandoned street, but it’s another thing to be all alone out there. There’s just an element of threat despite the beauty.”
And like so many Westerns, “The Missing” uses the vastness of the landscape to give evil a script and a stage and the freedom to operate that kept people looking over their shoulders.
“People just lived in a state of alert,” Howard says. “In that sort of cloud of fear, it becomes difficult to know who to trust or even to find the truth when you look for it.”
Howard says he used Indians from U.S. tribes, including Navajo, Apache, Lakota and Crow, plus some from Canada.
Working on “The Missing” seemed to change actress Cate Blanchett, he said.
For one thing, the rift between her character and Jones’ brought back memories of losing her father, who died about the same age at which her character, Maggie Gilkeson, was abanded by Jones.
“She was able to draw some very powerful, poignant emotional connections there,” Howard said.
“She was fascinated by what she was learning,” he said. “About halfway through the filming, she had to go on some business to Los Angeles, and she said for the first time in her life she was actually comfortable in Los Angeles. She felt more comfortable in America having played this frontier woman. …She seemed to understand it a little bit better.”
Her pleasant memories of the two months spent on the set of the new motion picture, “The Missing,” filmed around Santa Fe, brings a smile to the face of Elbys Hugar as she relates some of her special moments there.
The dedication of cast members - many from other Indian groups around the country and Canada - to learn the Chiricahua Apache language gave her pride to be part of the project, she said.
The crew, including star Tommy Lee Jones and director Ron Howard, “adopted” Hugar, throwing her a surprise party on her 74th birthday with a big cake and warm shawl as a gift. They have stayed in touch with her since filming ended.
Hugar already was well known on the Mescalero Reservation and among groups of historians charting the history of the tribe, its language and culture. Working with Scott Rushforth, an anthropologist with New Mexico State University, she co-authored a dictionary of the Chiricahua Apache language with Beryl Kanseah, and later, a medical dictionary. She also worked on the documentary “Geronimo and the Apache Resistance,” filmed around 1997. A chapter is devoted to her in the book, “Women of the Apache Nation,” and she is contributing to a new documentary now filming called “Prisoners of War.”
That subject hits close to her heart because her own grandparents, Old Man Naiche and his wife, Haozini, were prisoners of the government. Part of her family stayed behind at Fort Sill, Okla., when a large contingent of Chiricahua joined the Mescalero on the New Mexico reservation.
“Our people went to prison for 27 years and we’re telling the story about what happened to them,” she said. “It’s very sad these things happened. Their children were taken and put in school (Carlisle Academy), where their hair was cut and they wore uniforms.”
Her bloodline boasts some impressive lineage on its own. She is the great-granddaughter of the Chiricahua leader Cochise.
“First, I taught them the sound of the voiceless ‘L,’” she said, demonstrating a sliding sound coming from each side of her teeth. “It’s very hard.
“They started with different lines and I’d teach how to say them. Scott put that on CDs and they studied overnight.”
She gave the entire cast Apache names and they learned their lines at her direction before filming started, she said.
“I had to make sure they said it right,” Hugar said. “They all did real good. Sometimes they would write it (phonetically) their own way. I’m very proud of them.”
The two cast members who mastered the language the best were Indians Jay Tavare from Canada, and Eric Schweig from West Hollywood, Calif. Nearly the entire cast claimed Indian heritage, including Jones, who is Cherokee through his grandmother, Hugar said.
“He learned how to pray in Apache” and included that in the movie, she said. Hugar routinely prayed before teaching sessions and still prays each morning and night.
Perhaps her biggest challenge came when she was asked to write some songs for the movie, including a death chant and a healing song that Jones sings to his wounded son in the film.
“That was the first time (she wrote a song), but that’s what they wanted and I did my best,” Hugar said. She was pleasantly surprised when she heard an actor from Taos put her words to her music exactly as she wrote them.
While she was in Santa Fe with her husband of 32 years, Charles Hugar, she laboriously constructed during hours away from the set a puberty dress for a granddaughter scheduled to celebrate her passage into womanhood that summer.
She takes seriously all of the Apache traditions and that’s why she prayed the cast members would learn well and respect the language.
“They did,” she said. “I never heard anyone say, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ They all were willing to learn it and wanted to learn more. We kept adding more and more.
“Ron Howard and Tommy Lee Jones fell in love with the language and during any break, they wanted something more done in Apache. They would say what can we do, and I would think and come up with an idea. It was a lot of fun. They all took good care of me. I about cry when I remember.”
After Howard yelled cut at the end of a scene where multiple actors were speaking the language, Hugar ran up and hugged him because she was so proud of their performances.
She wishes such enthusiasm for the Apache language was more prevalent on the Mescalero Reservation, Hugar said.
At different times, she has encouraged use of the language in school and homes to ensure its survival, but has found that many students aren’t interested and their parents don’t use the language at home to reinforce the pronunciation.
Hugar’s husband said the producer, Daniel Ostroff, called from New York City to talk about the movie’s premiere. “The first thing Ron Howard asked (in the background) was how Elbys was,” he said.
Hugar said a co-worker at Casino Apache, where she is a cashier, nearly fainted one day when she received a call from Jones and his wife Dawn.
“I miss them just like they miss me because we all had fun together,” Hugar said. “We would tell jokes and worked together real good, like one big family.”
American Indian actors gathered at the James A. Little Theatre in Santa Fe on Sunday, December 14 for a special screening of the motion picture – The Missing.
Students from the Santa Fe Indian School were invited to watch The Missing and participate in a Q&A session with actors, stuntmen and the producer, Daniel Ostroff. The intent of the screening was to gain feedback from a native audience regarding the use of Chiricahua Apache culture in the film.
The Missing, produced by Daniel Ostroff and directed by Ron Howard was filmed entirely in New Mexico. Lead actors Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett and Evan Rachel Wood pose as a family victimized by a gang of rebel apaches. The leader of the Apache gang named Pesh-Chindin is played by Eric Schweig (Inuit). The following native actors represent Apache renegades – Steve Reevis (Blackfeet), Deryle Lujan (Taos Pueblos), Matthew Montoya (Taos Pueblo), Joe Saenz (Warm Springs Apache), Gandi Shaw (Dakota), also stuntmen Rod Rondeaux (Crow/Cheyenne), Juddson Linn (Delaware/Shawnee) and Dutch Lunak (Blackfeet). Yolanda Nez (Dine) portrays a young bride also kidnapped by Pesh. Nez’s potential husband played by Simon Baker (Cree) and his father played by Jay Tavere (White Mountain Apache) assist in the tracking of the renegade gang.
Steve Reevis, Deryle Lujan, Rod Rondeaux, Jay Tavere, Yolanda Nez and Simon Baker were present to sign posters and answer questions at the screening.
During the Q&A session, young people were encouraged and welcomed by producer Daniel Ostroff to participate in the film industry. Actors and stuntmen were questioned how they started in film, if it was difficult to learn the Chiricahua Apache language, and how they felt about the authenticity of the representation of American Indian culture.
A key message during the event was cultural preservation. Youth were encouraged to learn and maintain their native languages. The making of motion picture The Missing was cited as tool for the preservation of the Chiricahua language. Overall, the screening of The Missing was deemed a positive experience for all who participated.
Special Screening of “The Missing” Held At Allen 5 Theater
A special screening of Director Ron Howard’s recent film “The Missing” was held at the White Sands Mall Theater in Alamogordo on Tuesday November 25th, 2003.
The Special Apache Premier was held in honor of Mrs. Elbys Hugar and Mr. Berle Kanseah who were advisors and linguists for the film. Because of their knowledge of the Chirichua language and culture, the two were sought-after by director Ron Howard and producer Daniel Ostroff. Hugar and Kanseah taught the actors the Chiricahua Apache language and were consultants on traditional dress and other cultural aspects involved in the production. The movie premiered earlier in New York City and Santa Fe, New Mexico, but for those in attendance, the event at Alamogordo was extraordinarily special. “The Missing” was viewed in three theatres simultaneously to packed houses.
Mescalero resident Cooney Starr said he thought the movie was very good and that he was surprised at how well actor Tommy Lee Jones spoke the Apache language. Others agreed, saying that their favorite part of the movie was listening to the language being spoken by the actors and the fact that good prevailed over bad.
Actor Jay Tavare who plays the Chiricahua Apache Kayitah in the film was on-hand to visit, pose for photos, and sign autographs. Tavare sat at a tiny table in the mall and was patient and gracious as he quickly became surrounded by fans and curious onlookers. The atmosphere was warm and had a genuine family-like feeling. Tavare who is White Mountain Apache and Navaho said he was proud to play a part in a production that reflected an unbiased portrayal of the Apache People.
Learning the language was a personal endeavor for Tavare, and for him have opportunity to break stereotypical portrayals of the Apache people was equally as important.
Teaching the language was also special to Elbys Hugar who stressed the importance of keeping the Chiricahua language, and making certain that it is taught to the children.
Tavare spoke with affection and respect about the generosity of Elbys Hugar and Berl Kanseah. “Elbys was my inspiration, she was unbelievable,” Tavare said.
He said he felt a huge weight on his shoulders whan Elbys reminded him that his work was for the Apache Nation, and that he had best make her proud. A fitness enthusiast, Tavare trained extensively for the movie.
Producer Daniel Ostroff was instrumental in bringing the screening to the Alamogordo Theater. Ostroff has produced movies such as Dogtown and Z-Boys, (2001) which earned the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience and Directors Award.
Ostroff is one of the producers on “12 Mile Road”, starring Tom Selleck, which premiered in September of 2003. The project reunited Ostroff with award-winning writer-director Richard Friedberg.
Berlin International Film Festival
Nominated, Golden Berlin Bear: Ron Howard
Won, Young Artist Award
Best Performance in a Feature Film – Leading Young Actress: Jenna Boyd
Native American responses to The Missing
“Apaches Savor Language Once ‘Missing’”
“Film Not Missing Authenticity”
“N.M.’s Landscape Takes A Star Turn”
Native American Times
“Special Screening of “The Missing” Held at Allen 5 Theater”