FILMS

Verdict on trial

Robert Redford reopens a disturbing case

Brian D. Johnson July 27 1992
FILMS

Verdict on trial

Robert Redford reopens a disturbing case

Brian D. Johnson July 27 1992

Verdict on trial

FILMS

Robert Redford reopens a disturbing case

He has no sense of time, the publicist had warned. He would call sometime in the morning. The phone finally rang at 1:15 p.m. “Hi, this is Robert Redford.” The voice had a casual straight-shooting charm that seemed to come right out of Marlboro country. Redford was calling to discuss his new movie, and he began by explaining that a tight schedule left him only 20 minutes to talk. “I apologize in advance,” he said. “The situation is important enough for me to want to do an hour and a half on it.” The “situation” is the life imprisonment of American Indian activist Leonard Peltier. And the movie is Incident at Oglala, a gripping documentary feature offering persuasive evidence that Peltier was unfairly convicted of murdering two FBI agents on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation in 1975. The film, for which Redford served as narrator and executive producer, is the result of his obsessive 12-year quest to bring Peltier’s case to the screen. “This man has been railroaded,” Redford told Maclean ’s. “It adds up to an outrageous default in the American system of justice.” Eloquently directed by British film-maker

Michael Apted, Incident at Oglala does not attempt to prove Peltier’s innocence. But it does make a convincing case that the FBI suppressed evidence in his trial and intimidated a key witness into committing peijury. The film also claims that the FBI falsified evidence to secure Peltier’s extradition from Canada after his arrest in western Alberta 16 years ago. “That alone,” said Redford, “should have been cause for a new trial.”

In 1976, when Redford was Hollywood’s top box-office draw, he starred in All the President’s Men, the movie based on the book by Watergate investigators Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The star portrayed Woodward with a heroic glamor that the Washington Post reporter has never lived down. Redford is now 54 and his box-office power has waned. But with the Peltier case, he became an investigative crusader in his own right, tracing threads of possible conspiracy into the shadowy confines of the FBI. “Bob Woodward called me the champion of lost causes,” Redford recalled with a laugh. “I phoned him and said, ‘You know the FBI. How do I get through?’ He said, ‘You’re going to come up against stonewalling’—and we did.”

Redford traces his involvement in Peltier’s case to “a pretty intense interest in Indians” that began in his childhood. “I spent time on reservations in the 1960s,” he said, “and then went into a really deep involvement all through the 1970s, producing documentaries, working with Indian leaders and feeling very akin to their way of viewing the world, especially as it relates to the environment.”

In 1980, he explored Peltier’s case with author Peter Matthiessen, who was writing a book about it. (In the Spirit of Crazy Horse appeared in 1983; Matthiessen re-released it last year after winning two long and costly libel suits brought by former South Dakota governor William Janklow and FBI special agent David Price.) Meanwhile, Matthiessen told Redford that Peltier’s life was in danger. Peltier was under heavy security at the federal penitentiary in Marion, 111. “Peter heard from various underground sources that he was about to be wasted,” Redford recalled.

Having just played a warden in Brubaker, a movie about prison reform, in 1981 Redford used his influence to arrange a well-publicized visit to Peltier in jail. “I went there to hopefully thwart any threat against his life, and also to see if there was a movie here,” said the actor. “I was extremely impressed by his stature and dignity and the kind of inner strength he had considering the pressure he was under.” Redford had first planned to make Peltier the subject of a dramatic feature. But as he investigated, he became more concerned with helping the prisoner get a retrial. And he decided that only a documentary could do justice to the facts of the case—and to Peltier. “In 1989, I decided it had gone on long enough,” said Redford. “The poor man was just rotting there. He may be innocent. And even if he’s guilty, he probably had good cause

to do what he did, considering the abuse of these people by our government. There was intimidation. It was a war zone.” Added Redford: “I thought it was best to focus on whether Leonard received a fair trial.”

When a miscarriage of justice seems to have occurred, the movie camera can serve as a final avenue of appeal. In the groundbreaking documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988), U.S. director Errol Morris captured a confession that led to the exoneration of a vagabond wrongly convicted of murder. Incident at Oglala has not achieved such spectacular results. But by intercutting talking heads with quick flashes of dramatic re-enactment, Apted builds a convincing case. Borrowing a technique that Morris employed in The Thin Blue Line, he punctuates the narrative with a single recurring image—of the FBI agents’ two cars swerving off the road.

Apted also directed last spring’s Thunderheart, a fictional thriller inspired by the conflicts on the Pine Ridge reservation. But in Incident at Oglala, he is careful to limit his dramatic licence. The re-enactments are just a stylish pacing device, not a substitute for documentary footage. With Redford narrating, the film maintains an even-tempered, dignified tone. Interviewing Indians, FBI authorities, legal adversaries, a juror and Peltier in his cell, Apted tries to reconstruct the events of June 26, 1975.

On that day, FBI special agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams chased a vehicle onto the Pine Ridge reservation. Ostensibly, they were looking for a young Indian suspected of stealing a pair of cowboy boots. The agents pulled off the road to an area where members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) were camped. A shootout followed, and both agents died from shots to the head fired at close range.

Police soon surrounded the area. One Indian was killed, but several others escaped—including Peltier, who fled to Canada, and Robert Robideau and Darrelle Butler, who were acquitted of the agents’ murders. The film-makers contend that, after Peltier’s arrest in 1976, the FBI distorted evidence to obtain his extradition. Said Redford: “The government blew its first case [against Robideau and Butler]. Somebody was going to pay for the death of those two FBI guys come hell or high water.”

The movie claims that FBI investigators skewed ballistics reports to show that Peltier’s rifle was the murder weapon. And, in a chilling sequence, an Indian woman named Myrtle Poor Bear says that an FBI agent threatened to kill her and abduct her daughter if she did not sign a false affidavit incriminating Peltier. She signed, reversing two previous statements.

Although Incident at Oglala does not solve the murder case, it puts it into context so effectively that Peltier’s particular fate seems less tragic than that of his people. The FBI

deaths were just the first white casualties in a war that had killed dozens of Indians on the reservation. According to the film, tribal leader Richard Wilson, a federal government puppet, had been consolidating his power with a reign of terror. His vigilante GOON (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) squad was set on destroying the traditionalist Lakota Indians and their AIM leadership. “These people were not only impoverished,” said Redford, “but threatened with extinction as a culture and as individuals.”

By 1975, there were 60 unsolved murders of AIM members and supporters, including women

and children. John Trudell, AIM’s former national spokesman, lost his wife, mother-in-law and three children in a 1979 house fire that started a few hours after he had delivered an anti-FBI speech. “All I did was talk,” says Trudell, one of the film’s most grimly effective interview subjects. A musician, Trudell also worked with Jackson Browne to create the film’s evocative sound track—and he played an AIM militant in Apted’s Thunderheart.

In Incident at Oglala, faces can be more persuasive than facts. The contrast between the soul-searching candor of Peltier’s supporters and the stony defensiveness of his accusers becomes the most convincing argument of all. In fact, Redford says that FBI stonewalling became a huge obstacle in making the film.

Since the film’s American release in May, the standoff between the film-makers and the FBI has taken new twists. A U.S. district judge recently ruled that the FBI had no legitimate reason to withhold from the film-makers transcripts of radio transmissions from the two agents before they were killed. The FBI has appealed the ruling. This month, an FBI agent

paid a visit to a native woman who was on Peltier’s legal team. “He asked her questions about any information she might have supplied to [Democratic] Senator [Daniel] Inouye, to me and to the film,” said Redford. “He told her her life was in danger.” (Inouye, chairman of the select committee on Indian affairs, has filed a complaint with the FBI. He has also asked President George Bush to review Peltier’s case and urged Canada to rescind the extradition order—all without success.)

Redford argues that the trail of intimidation surrounding the Peltier case originates with what he calls “the paranoia” of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. “We know about Hoover’s power,” he said. “He intimidated presidents. The abuse at Pine Ridge took place on land that the government would love to control because of the uranium and gas and oil underneath it.” Added Redford: “My position is that Hoover, in alliance with business interests, was out to protect those resources.” Asked if he ever gets paranoid about becoming a target himself, Redford replied: “Sure, from time to time.” When talking about himself, Redford is less loquacious. He tends to use his celebrity status rather than bask in it. Living on a 5,000-acre ranch in Utah, he has been playing most of his leading roles off-camera. He married Lola Jean Van Wagenen in 1958 and the couple has three grown children. Aside from working on native and envi§ ronmental campaigns, he serves as a ^ godfather to independent film-makers ? at Utah’s Sundance Institute, which he I created in 1980.

During the past decade, Redford’s screen appearances have been infrequent—his last role was as a derelict expatriate in Havana (1990), a disastrous flop. But he is starring in two upcoming projects, Sneakers, a caper movie about a team of computer spies, and Indecent Proposal, in which he plays a gambler who buys a night with another man’s wife, played by Demi Moore, for $1 million. And he has just finished directing A River Runs Through It, a period drama based on Norman Maclean’s novel about two fly-fishing brothers growing up in Montana. As well, he plans to produce 10 low-budget movies based on Tony Hillerman’s series of mystery novels about two Navajo tribal policemen.

But Redford seemed loath to discuss his career. And the star with no sense of time had talked much longer than he had intended. Meanwhile, Peltier, who is serving two consecutive life terms, has nothing but time. In jail, he has taken up painting, a vocation that Redford abandoned to pursue an acting career. And in Incident at Oglala, the convicted man’s quiet stoicism leaves an unforgettable impression. “I’ve got my dignity, my self-respect,” he calmly concludes. “Even if I die here, it’s just my fate.”

BRIAN D. JOHNSON