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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.

Is the 1936 Serial ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ Historically Accurate?

As is the case with many pieces of historical fiction, the argument comes into play as to just how accurate the portrayal of real historical events that occur within the piece actually are. Despite what might prove to be excellent cinematography or acting or even a compelling story to supplement whatever events are plugged into the narrative, the debate often comes back to focus on just how much detail was paid to the true history that might have been happening in the background that would either give or take away from the credibility of the film, TV show or otherwise. In the case of the serial from 1936, “Custer’s Last Stand,” the historical accuracy surprisingly saves this piece from utter obscurity as the result of a low-budget project from Stage and Screen Productions.

Despite criticisms of the rather weak and dilapidated story line that came about from the writing of Eddie Granneman and William Lively, the material was compensated for and complimented by the additions put forth by George Arthur Durlam, who would later go on to write, produce and direct short films that provided glimpses into American history for a company called “Academic Film Company.” The menagerie of cast members filling all sorts of roles was actually a testament to Durlam’s historical accuracy in the making of this serial. Whereas many might take the opportunity to incorporate fictional characters into real historical situations, Durlam appeared to remain true to the historical figures who were actually associated with Custer’s Last (historical) Stand or at least the contemporary time period surrounding the event.

Such characters to make it into the film included Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, both notorious historical figures who were gunfighters and lived off the frontier. While historical accounts of Wild Bill’s exploits remain foggy at best, it is undeniable that he was at least a figure of considerable notoriety at the time of Custer’s Last Stand, whether or not he was actually directly involved.

Other characters include notable officers that participated in the Midwestern Indian Wars, such as Nelson A. Miles and George Crook. Even Custer himself was accurately portrayed as a colonel as opposed to a general.

Certain events within the serial also appear to be more historically accurate than not. Pertaining to the empty Native village, the details are argued to be historically on point. The division of Custer’s forces, as well as the details surrounding the escape of Curley, a Native scout, also ring true to actual history. Even references to events outside the scope of the actual story lend themselves well to the historical accuracy of the serial as a whole, particularly with the addition of Custer’s mention of service with the Michigan cavalry at Gettysburg.

While the serial appears to suffer dramatically from the back-and-forth narrative between historical events and the fictional portion of the telling that involves characters such as Young Wolf and Red Fawn, it would also appear that the part concerning the real-to-life historical events suffer much less criticism than one might think in regard to a poorly-done project. Some might say that Durlam was the saving grace to this serial that stood to be overly theatrical with a deluge of poor cinematography and even poorer consistency to the narrative itself. But, at least they were able to incorporate some actual history into the background of their otherwise failed storytelling.