A tip of the cowboy hat to Netflix, for picking up this Chickasaw Nation-financed drama and offering it during Native American Heritage Month.
“Montford: The Chickasaw Rancher,” is about a 19th century member of the Chickasaw Nation who became a land and cattle baron in the Oklahoma Indian Territories, and who maintained his empire even after the U.S. government turned around and sold that “Indian” land during the “Sooner” land rushes of the late 19th century.
I dare say most of us outside of Oklahoma have never heard of Johnson, whose father was a Scottish actor and mother half-Chickasaw and a member of the tribe. But his story, a little “Red River” with a touch of “Giant,” makes for an epic saga — or a compact, sturdy 90 minute action biography, in this case.
Director Nathan Frankowski (“To Write Love on Her Arms”) and first-time-produced screenwriter Lucy Tennessee Cole gives us a prologue — young Montford and his sister’s childhood abandonment by their father (Dermot Mulroney) — and jumps straight to his 1861 wedding day.
The Civil War is underway, and the tribes of Oklahoma, learning little from the Iroquois Confederacy’s experiences choosing the wrong side to join in the American Revolution, have allied themselves with the CSA. When rapacious “blue belly” Union troops interrupt the wedding, an elder gives them and us the reason for the alliance — the same one that motivated the Iroquois, “broken treaties” and the existential threat the USA represented to Native cultures.
The nasty, cattle-procuring Sgt. Richter (James Landry Hébert) and his racist “wild Injuns” threats tell Montford (Martin Senmeiser of “Wind River” and “Westworld”) this is going to be a long war. Washington’s ongoing “control” to ensure “progress” assimilation or reservations policies are “why we always win,” Sgt. Bad Teeth sneers, “and Injuns always lose.”
Montford, his wife Mary Elizabeth (Grace Montie) and trusted hired hand Jack (Denim Richards) struggle through the lean war years, with their livestock always under threat from the Army or rustlers who wear hoods and dress as Natives.
But the Johnsons start a family, and after the war, rounding up “maverick” cattle from the hills marks the beginning of a big herd.
Frankowski’s film features standoffs and shootouts with scalp-hunting bandits (Tommy Flanagan plays their leader), a front-row seat for the “official” depredations of mass buffalo slaughter, a policy meant to force the tribes onto reservations, and a cattle drive.
And Johnson’s place within his community is never left onscreen. He pitches in to helping the starving from other tribes, and when Cheyenne leaders (Tanaka Means plays Rising Wolf) are arrested and shipped off to St. Augustine, Florida, Montford and his now-returned prodigal father go their to speak up for them.
It was a life lived large in hard times, and Senmeiser makes a charismatic and striking lead for this hero’s journey.
After a teetering start — that wedding scene has speechifying and archetype-embracing that can put your teeth on edge — the script settles down to move us through the mostly-true touchstone moments of Johnson’s life.
“Chickasaw” flirts with corny, here and there. Not all supporting actors are created equal. And it’s a pity Mulroney didn’t play the Scots dad as Scottish, but maybe next time.
But it’s better than most of the B-Westerns that come down the pike most years, the leads impress and the action beats are first-rate-on-a-budget.
Some streaming streaming service, maybe even this one, should take on the whole Montford Johnson family saga. It’s a stirring piece of history, full of drama, conflict, racism and rising above it that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves.
Cast: Martin Senmeiser, Denim Richards, Grace Montie, James Landry Hébert, Tommy Flanagan, Tanaka Means and Dermot Mulroney.
Credits: Directed by Nathan Frankowski, scripted by Lucy Tennessee Cole, based on a biography of the same title by Neil Johnson. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:36