Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Smoke Signals” directed by Chris Eyre

Released on video in June 1999 by Miramax films, Smoke Signals is the first full-length film that has been performed and directed by the American Indians. Smoke Signals is “from top to bottom, an American Indian production, and that makes it historically unprecedented” (Ward Churchill). Adam Beach and Evan Adams play the roles of Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire respectively. They are Coeur d’Alene Indians and the movie opens in Idaho on the fourth of July 1976. Thomas’ parents who were alcoholics die in a fire and Arnold Joseph, played by Gary Farmer, the stepfather of Victor, saves Thomas. Arnold Joseph is seen to have a drinking problem and is eventually thrown out of the house by his wife. Arnold, leaving his son behind, goes off to live in Phoenix. After a long period of no contact with him, Victor finds out that his stepfather has passed away (Anonymous). Not financially very stable, Victor is worried about not being able to go to Phoenix and receive his father’s ashes. Thomas is however willing to pay for the journey on the condition that he accompanies Victor. Victor does not have any other choice and although he never really liked Thomas, he agrees to the offer. Thomas and Victor both travel to take possession of Arnold’s remains. Victor is the more serious and quiet type while Thomas is more of a storyteller. “Through storytelling, Thomas makes every effort to connect with the people around him” (Anonymous).

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‘The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” is the book by Sherman Alexie on which “Smoke Signals” is based. “The filmmaker makes imaginative use of references to popular cinema throughout the film” (Paul Bond). Victor accuses Thomas for possessing the knowledge about the American Indian by viewing “Dances with the Wolves” and being the serious one, he advises Thomas to mature up and spend time “looking stoic.” Although the Americans had taken over the land of the Indians originally, Sherman has shown that the Indians had to ill feeling towards their culture and people like Thomas and his parents, who were celebrating the American Independence Day when they died, were blending in or at least trying to blend in. “You’re leaving the Rez and going into a whole different country, Cousin,’ one young Indian woman teases. But aren’t they traveling in the United States? ‘Damn right it is!’ adds her girlfriend. ‘That’s as foreign as it gets'” (Janet Maslin). This cultural clash is seen from the moment both friend board the bus, and the audience experiences the racism, however cultural clash was not one of the main themes of the movie. The movie basically is about the resentment in the hearts of the people, like the resentment in Victor’s heart for his father, and how they solve such issues and work their way past any ill feelings in their hearts.

‘Smoke Signals” shows how Thomas and Victor, two people who are from the opposite ends of a spectrum, come together and the ties which keep them as such. It shows to the audience, generally the Americans that the Indians have not faded out or died and are very well in the United States. In itself the movie is a message to the Indians themselves that they are making progress in the world today. The movie is like one of those conventional road trip movies where the journey teaches the person philosophical wisdom and helps them overcome their fears, resentments and other negativities in their character. Just the way each person in the road trip helps the other learn something, Victor teaches Thomas what a real Indian is and that he should not base his knowledge about them on the ideas presented by the Americans. Thomas on the other hand does his part and introduces Victor to the idea that life is not about being all strict, stern and firm and one can enjoy and joke once in a while. Sherman has taught both Thomas and Victor the important lessons of life and through them he has communicated with the Indian world informing that to gain respect one does not need to always “look mean.” However he also addresses the issue that Indian should get in touch with their roots and history through the right sources rather than how Americans or others might portray them in their books or movies. While Thomas learns these important lessons of wisdom, Victor tries to seek within his heart to forgive his dead father. He is confused as anger and love towards his father fight a battle within him. They meet with a young woman Suzy Song, played remarkably be Irene Bedard, who along with Thomas helps Victor’s power of love overcome the anger within him.

Sherman with his expertise has imparted wisdom to many and made some cry and laugh while watching Smoke Signals. “Smoke Signals is so intensely personal that it is difficult to get into why it is such a perfect movie without drifting into one’s own past … something which most people will only do with people they trust” (James Brundage). Except for a fire in the beginning, a couple of slaps and the brief view of a dead man, there is no gore, violence or nudity in the movie which Hollywood cannot do without today. Yet Smoke Screen packs a punch and is a very powerful, comical and touching movie. It is no surprise that it won the Sundance Film Award and the Independent Spirit Award. It deserved it.


(1) Ward Churchill — Smoke Signals in Context: An Historical Overview. [Online website] Available from: http://www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/nov98ward.htm [Accessed on: 22/09/2005]

(2) Anonymous — Plot Summary of Smoke Signals. [Online website] Available from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120321/plotsummary [Accessed on: 22/09/2005]

(3) Anonymous — “Smoke Signals” Summary. [Online website] Available from: http://www.fallsapart.com/smoke.html [Accessed on: 22/09/2005]

(4) Paul Bond — Stories from the reservation. [Online website] Available from: http://www.wsws.org/arts/1998/nov1998/smo-n20.shtml [Accessed on: 22/09/2005]

(5) Janet Maslin — ‘Smoke Signals’: 2 Idaho Indians Trace a Shared Past. The New York Times June 26, 1998. [Online website] Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/library/film/062698smoke-film-review.html [Accessed on: 22/09/2005]

(6) James Brundage — Smoke Signals. [Online website] Available from: http://www.filmcritic.com/misc/emporium.nsf/ddb5490109a79f598625623d0015f1e4/974fbac60c853d6a882567da00057583?OpenDocument [Accessed on: 22/09/2005]

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