Is The 1958 Film “Tonk” Historically Accurate?

Historical fiction often suffers the criticism of its attention to actual historical detail in an effort to tell a unique story that may (or may not) have taken place in a similar time period as that of popular, real historical accounts. In the case of “Tonka,” the 1958 film produced by Disney that also went under the name “A Horse Named Comanche,” the movie attempts a telling about a cavalry horse that survives the Battle of Little Big Horn. The story itself, starring Sal Mineo as a Sioux named White Bull, is actually based on a book by David Appel called “Comanche: Story of America’s Most Heroic Horse.”

The premise of the story takes place in a time period that features Custer’s Last Stand and the Battle of Little Big Horn. The most dramatic change within the story itself seems to come from the perspective, as the movie prominently features the Sioux rather than the United States military under which Colonel Custer served. The main plot of the story circulates around White Bull developing a relationship with the wild horse (Tonka) before releasing him due to mistreatment from another Sioux named Yellow Bull. Tonka eventually is taken in and commissioned by the United States cavalry under the care of one Captain Miles Keogh. Through a series of events, White Bull hears of Tonka/Comanche’s part in the U.S. Cavalry and goes to see him, thus developing a rapport and friendship with Captain Keogh in the process. The events coincide with Custer’s attack on the Sioux village where his army and he are subsequently ambushed and defeated. White Bull and Tonka are noted survivors (on the side of the United States) and Tonka is decommissioned and retired for his duty after the battle. The epilogue reveals that Tonka and White Bull remain united, as White Bull is apparently the only one who can handle Tonka’s disposition.

While the movie itself receives praise for some of its historical accuracies, there is also wide criticism regarding the shallow approach to the events leading up to the attack on the Sioux village as well as the base of the overall conflict regarding the Sioux and the U.S. Cavalry altogether. TCM.com notes that several different critics were concerned with issues such as “the causes of the Little Big Horn conflict and for romanticizing the Sioux” as well as making “no attempt to explore the rights and wrongs of the situation between the Redskins and whites in the 1870’s” says Christian Science Monitor. The New York Times and other law professionals also weighed in, critiquing that the movie failed to explore any reasoning as well for the friction or root cause of conflict between the two peoples. While it was a touching story that united two fictional characters in one of the most unlikely of ways, it is also fairly obvious to say that the movie failed to explore much if any of the significance behind the historically true portions within it.