Overlooked yet notable films about Native Americans -- ''Apache,'' ''Cheyenne Autumn,'' ''Little Big Man,'' and more avoided racial stereotyping before ''Dances With Wolves''

Let’s be honest: One reason Dances With Wolves won big at the Oscars last week is that voting for it helped assuage Tinseltown guilt over all the Westerns that portrayed Native Americans as heap-big buffoons and ignoble savages. Long before Dances With Wolves, however, some outstanding films succeeded at avoiding the usual Hollywood stereotypes of Indians, portraying them as fully rounded characters, and these movies shouldn’t be overlooked in the rush to honor Dances as a lone wolf.

APACHE (1954, Playhouse) Mythic ”last warrior” Massai declares personal war on white civilization following Apache chief Geronimo’s 1886 surrender and forces U.S. lawmen to spend weeks tracking him through the Southwestern desert. Director Robert Aldrich’s ’50s adult Western features Burt Lancaster in a triumph of man over makeup, although the film is overly talky in spots. B-

CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964, Warner) For his final Western, director John Ford sought to celebrate Native American culture as a means of atoning for negative stereotyping of Indians in his previous films. For subject matter, he chose a legendary incident: The 1,500-mile trek by 300 Cheyenne from a dismal Oklahoma reservation to their homelands in Wyoming. The video version reinstates a farcical Dodge City segment that was cut after the film’s first run, with James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. B-

TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE (1969, MCA/Universal) Hollywood blacklist victim Abraham Polonsky returned to filmmaking to write and direct this parable of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the ’50s. The fact-based drama, set in 1909, is about a Paiute hothead (Robert Blake) whose defiance of tribal elders is turned into a national-security threat by the Anglos. Robert Redford plays the good-guy Anglo sheriff. A-

LITTLE BIG MAN (1970, Key) Arthur Penn’s picaresque yarn follows Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), ”sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn,” over his 121 years of living and loving among the Plains Indians. Little Big Man takes too long to say too little but is partly redeemed by its passionate empathy with the Indians and the majestic performance of Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne leader whose rage at the white man’s abuse of his people still sears. B-

A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970, CBS/Fox) Twenty years before Dances With Wolves, director Elliot Silverstein helmed a grittier, less idealized version of virtually the same story: A white guy in search of himself finds kinship, love, and self-respect among the Sioux tribesmen who come to accept him as a brother. What’s more, just as with Dances, Horse has true Native Americans playing the Indian characters and speaking Sioux. A-

POWWOW HIGHWAY (1989, Warner) Director Jonathan Wacks creates a sometimes comical, always angry road picture. Gary Farmer and A. Martinez are fractiously real as two beaten-down contemporary Cheyenne who battle in different ways-one traditional, one radically modern — to protect their people and their legacy. A

Dances with Wolves
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  • 183 minutes