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With: Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, Tommy Reynolds, Mary Donahue, Clydean Parker, Rico Rodriguez, Clifford Ray Sam, Eddie Sunrise
Written by: Kent MacKenzie
Directed by: Kent MacKenzie
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 72
Date: 07/13/1961

The Exiles (1961)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Indian Stunner

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Most people have probably never heard of Kent Mackenzie's historically and culturally essential film The Exiles (1961). Some clips of it surfaced in Thom Andersen's great documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2004) -- about the use of Los Angeles locations in movies -- but unfortunately most people have never heard of that film either. Andersen included it prominently because it managed to find vivid corners of the city that actually looked like a city and not set dressing. Now thanks to Milestone (who also gave us the 2007 re-release and 2008 DVD of Charles Burnett's extraordinary Killer of Sheep) the film in its entirety has been released on an outstanding two-disc set.

It's difficult to argue the film as an artistic masterpiece; it seems to be influenced by the French New Wave films of the time, but also it seems to have been put together in that fashion out of a sheer lack of resources. Mackenzie very often repeats certain shots and the audio doesn't always match the movement of the actors' lips. But the movie has an undeniable emotional punch and its historical place in cinema is undisputable (there's still nothing else quite like it). Shot in black-and-white, it begins with Edward Curtis photographs and moves into rock music by the Revels. The movie then follows seven American Indians over the course of a night. One man, Homer (Homer Nish), drops his pregnant wife Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) at a movie, while he and a buddy go off to play cards. Tommy (Tom Reynolds) and another buddy pick up two women at a diner and go for a drive. Eventually everyone ends up at the top of a hill for a late-night powwow, complete with drumming and chanting. Nearly everyone drinks almost constantly (mainly "Thunderbird" wine).

The three protagonists occasionally narrate via comments, thoughts and dreams, all of which Mackenzie recorded beforehand and matched up to the images afterward. The men admit that they're mostly looking for happiness, or at least a good time, while Yvonne longs for some kind of simple stability. Yvonne, with her beautiful, babyish face, is by far the most fascinating character. She very simply hopes that things will be better for her baby. As for herself, she seems heartbreakingly caught between a naïve acceptance and vague dissatisfaction. The most revealing part is the movie she watches: a Sterling Hayden Western called The Iron Sheriff (1957), a movie filled with white faces, and few if any red faces. Just imagine how she might have felt if she could have been dropped off to see The Exiles instead.

DVD Details: Aside from the gorgeous new black-and-white transfer, Milestone's two-disc DVD comes with a generous selection of extras. Author Sherman Alexie and critic Sean Axmaker provide a commentary track. There are clips from Los Angeles Plays Itself, a theatrical trailer, stills gallery, and MacKenzie's short student film Bunker Hill 1956, which inspired the feature. The second disc features three more MacKenzie short films: A Skill for Molina, Story of a Rodeo Cowboy, and Ivan and His Father. There are two other short films, Robert Kirste's Last Day of Angels Flight, and Greg Kimble's Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal. It also comes with the silent-era short White Fawn's Devotion (1910), which is considered the first American Indian film. There's even a selection of DVD-Rom extras, including the screenplay, and lots more. Sadly, director MacKenzie died in 1980 and never saw his film come to light. Released November 17, 2009.

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