In the autumn of 1845 smallpox ravages the Blackfoot Indian tribe in Montana. Seeking help legendary chief Winterhawk (Michael Dante) approaches a group of white settlers only to be lured into an ambush by unscrupulous fur trappers Gates (L.Q. Jones) and McClusky (Dennis Fimple). In revenge Winterhawk kidnaps minister's daughter Clayanna (Dawn Wells) and her little brother Cotton (the director's son Chuck Pierce Jr.) offering to trade both back for medicine. Whereupon Finley (Elisha Cook Jr.) beseeches Guthrie (Leif Erickson), grizzled frontiersman and blood brother to Winterhawk, to lead a posse to bring his niece and nephew safely home. Meanwhile Gates and McClusky are still at large while Clayanna and Cotton grow increasingly in awe of their noble captor, Winterhawk... despite actor Michael Dante's ignoble inability to break his one fixed constipated expression...
Westerns slowly fell from favour throughout the Seventies. Partly due to changing tastes and cultural attitudes but also significantly because the most prominent western filmmakers either died (John Ford, Anthony Mann), struggled to land financing for ambitious projects (Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher) or else moved on to other genres (Sam Peckinpah). In this period of uncertainty independent filmmaker Charles B. Pierce became the genre’s unlikely keeper of the flame. Pierce made his name with low-budget horror films (e.g. The Legend of Boggy Creek (1973), The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)) then parlayed that success into doing the westerns he really wanted to make. Unfortunately while Pierce had resources and a solid roster of seasoned cowboy character actors at his disposable his westerns are for the most pretty mediocre and today, mostly forgotten.
Meandering, disjointed and unfocused it may be but Winterhawk at least has its heart in the right place. It opens with a seemingly heartfelt dedication to Native Americans that lays it on thick, lauding them as "brave knights", "reckless"(!) horsemen and "tragically noble." Yet these phrases reek of patronising romanticism. The film presents a paper thin story that despite good intentions fails to grant any insight into neither Native American's historical plight nor their fascinating culture. Instead what Pierce presents is a cut-rate version of The Searchers (1956) peppered with B-western clichés. Swooning narration from Dawn Wells, formerly Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island, tries hard to weave a mystical aura around Winterhawk painting him as an iconic figure. Yet this is undone Michael Dante's fatally one-note performance. To say nothing of the fact that save for the climax Winterhawk does little besides grimace. Indeed a case could be made that his stubborn nature and poor judgement bring nothing but tragedy for his people and most of the characters that cross his path. Somehow Wells' meek heroine is inexplicably infatuated with him. It leads to a would-be stirring third act romance that ambushes the viewer from nowhere. Needless to say it is highly unconvincing.
Part history lesson, part knockabout romp, Winterhawk has gorgeous autumnal scenery and a supporting cast of old pros in its favour. Among them Leif Erickson of TV's The High Chaparral savouring one of his better latter day roles. However amidst a group of western regulars (Denver Pyle, Arthur Hunnicutt, L.Q. Jones, even Sacheen Littlefeather the Native American actress who infamously collected Marlon Brando's gong for The Godfather (1972) at the Academy Awards) the film grievously wastes the great Woody Strode. Pierce manages to mar brief instances of spectacle and suspense with misjudged comedy, laborious pacing and unintentional comic misuse of Peckinpah-style slow motion action. He also relies excessively on Wells' voiceover to paper over cracks in the narrative or else bludgeon themes best left to the sporadically poetic visuals. Strangest of all the film has no sense of time. While Wells' narration insists months have passed since her capture neither the visuals nor the characters' relationships or demeanour confirm this. Worse yet by contrast with portions focused on Guthrie's band and the nefarious antics of McClusky and Gates, the Winterhawk segments are dramatically inert. The film can't contrast its villains' despicable actions with the supposed nobility of the hero when he neither says nor does anything of any real significance.