With Sitting Bull at the Spirit Lake Massacre (1927) – By James L. Neibaur

 This silent drama was long considered among the large percentage of lost silent films until a print was discovered only recently.  Produced in 1925 but not released until 1927, this often startling drama offers Indians vs. White Settlers when the latter begins to infiltrate Iowa land long claimed by the Sioux.  

A States Rights Independent production, With Sitting Bull At The Spirit Lake Massacre has been released on DVD in a beautifully restored version by Televista.  

This film is perhaps the portent for the gaggle of B westerns to come from low budget sources during the 30s and 40s.  Independent filmmakers with little money to spend would make cheap, aggressive outdoor dramas and eventually create such stars as Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, and, later, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.  This indie tries to concentrate on straighter drama, and the idea of casting veteran Native American actor Chief Yowlachie in the role of Sitting Bull is inspired (Yowlachie had a long career, ending his days playing sage Indian chiefs on TV shows like The Virginian before his death in 1966).

The film is good, a tight little western drama, and the picture quality is outstanding for a movie that had been lost for eight decades.  Televista offers a beautiful print of this long elusive movie.  It is a classic of its kind in that it paved the way for many similar western dramas made by independent means.  It ends rather handily, showing Sitting Bull’s victory over the white settlers and suddenly cutting to a title card indicating his eventual placement on a reservation and a quick sequence indicating the leading white characters getting married.  But the overall film is quite entertaining.

If anything needed to be addressed, it is the music.  The musical accompaniment chosen by Televista just doesn’t work.  The cheerful piano and bebop jazz riffs are at odds with the more serious scenes on screen, while the mellow saxophone and subsequent xylophone  that accompanies one sequence in a cabin is genuinely distracting.  The forlorn violin music during the exciting Indian attack that climaxes the film almost ruins the impact of the conclusion.

With Sitting Bull At The Spirit Lake Massacre features such recognizable western actors as Bryant Washburn Sr and  Bob Steele, along with Hollywood character people like Jay Morley, Fred Warren, and Shirley Palmer (Palmer’s career ended shortly after talking pictures came along, but she lived until the 21st century).

It is always heartening to have the opportunity to promote a silent feature that has been rediscovered after being lost for decades.  With Sitting Bull At The Spirit Lake Massacre is recommended to collections of western films.