Silent Tongue (1994)


USA. 1994.


Director/Screenplay – Sam Shepard, Producers – Ludi Boeken & Carolyn Pfeifer, Photography – Jack Conroy, Music – Patrick O’Hearn, Medicine Show Music – The Red Clay Ramblers, Special Effects Supervisor – John K. Stirber, Makeup Effects – David Atherton, Production Design – Cary White. Production Company – Belbo/Alive


Richard Harris (Prescott Roe), Alan Bates (Dr Eamon McCree), Dermot Mulroney (Reeves McCree), River Phoenix (Talbot Roe), Sheila Tousey (Awbonnie), Jeri Arredondo (Velada McCree)


Llano Estacolo, 1873. Prescott Roe turns up at the travelling circus and medicine show run by the drunkard ‘Dr’ Eamon McCree and his son Reeves. Roe previously traded with McCree to buy McCree’s Indian half-breed daughter Awbonnie for his idiot son Talbot. However, Awbonnie died in childbirth and his son is so heartbroken that he will not leave the body. Roe wants to buy McCree’s other daughter Velada in the hope that it will distract Talbot. When Reeves objects, Roe abducts Velada. Meanwhile, Awbonnie’s ghost appears to the grief-stricken Talbot, begging him to destroy her body so that her spirit can be released, but he refuses.

Although known mostly to international audiences as an actor in films such as Days of Heaven (1978), Resurrection (1980), Frances (1982), The Right Stuff (1983) and Paris, Texas (1984), among a great may others, Sam Shepard is almost as well known in America as a playwright. He also occasionally serves as a film director – Silent Tongue was his second directorial (and to date last) foray following the little-seen Far North (1988) about a dysfunctional family.

With Sam Shepard’s literary talents also on script, Silent Tongue offers an intriguingly different story – a horse trader buying a drunken circus owner’s half-breed daughters as wives for his idiot son; the ghost of the first wife returning to implore the son to destroy her bodily remains so that she can obtain release and then trying to make him commit suicide when he refuses. Shepard’s take on both American Indian mythology and ghosts is very non-standard. The film also has a great cast lineup – Richard Harris, Alan Bates, Dermot Mulroney and River Phoenix (whose second-to-last film this was, released after his drug death in 1993).

Only Silent Tongue never quite comes off. The problem is actually Sam Shepard the director. Shepard has developed a naturalistic way of directing. The camera is embroiled in the landscape – he builds scenes by a slowly accreting picture of things of no particular importance happening, all adding to a greater whole. There is much observation of what is going on around the circus. Unfortunately, there is not much plot development during this time and it makes for a drawn-out and not terribly interesting film. What the film needed is a more straightforward director, one who would have opted for the epic shots and probably a more traditional view of ghosts, rather than Shepard’s dramatic style. There is a good story inside the film but it unfortunately has been buried in the method of telling. The film was poorly received at the box-office.

Film online in several parts beginning here:-

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