Tonka (1958)

Image Source: IMP Awards

Synopsis: In 1870s Dakota territory, a young Sioux Indian by the name of White Bull (Sal Mineo) is determined to capture and tame a wild stallion in order to prove his manhood to his tribe and bring pride to his mother Prairie Flower (Joy Page) and the great chief Sitting Bull (John War Eagle). Ignoring the discouraging words of his friend Strong Bear (Rafael Campos), White Bull leaves his village in secret and manages to trap the magnificent horse in a canyon, where he works for days to get the unruly stallion to trust him enough to allow him to ride. White Bull then returns to his people proudly riding atop his new horse, which he names Tonka Wakan – The Great One. The Sioux are indeed impressed with White Bull’s conquest, so much so that White Bull’s cruel older cousin Yellow Bull (H.M. Wynant) pulls rank on White Bull and claims Tonka as his own. White Bull decides he’d rather never see Tonka again than witness him suffer at the hands of the vicious Yellow Bull, so that night he lets Tonka free. Tonka is then spotted and captured by the U.S. Army and taken in as the personal horse of the kindly Captain Miles Keogh (Philip Carey), who is awaiting the heralded arrival of the infamous General George Custer (Britt Lomond). With the two sides headed inexorably toward the bloody conflict that would come to be known as the Battle of Little Bighorn, will White Bull and Tonka ever be reunited in peace?

The first thing I should tell you about Tonka is that I only own it on VHS, and as far as I know there is no commercially-available DVD, which means I couldn’t take screencaps. Just imagine a bare-chested Sal Mineo with Wednesday Addams braids riding around on a horse the whole time, and you’ve basically got the gist of the movie. In fact, it looks a lot like this:

…only the horse is brown.

The second thing I should tell you about Tonka is that it’s a live-action Disney production directed by Lewis R. Foster in 1958, so it’s not exactly… the most… accurate depiction of Native Americans. There’s a lot of war-whooping and talk of scalping, and all the Indians speak in that very stilted English that does not include any form of contractions, because apparently filmmakers used to get Native Americans confused with robots. And, of course, it’s mostly white actors in the Indian roles, with the exception of John War Eagle as Sitting Bull, who was like totally a REAL Indian omg. I’m not telling you to just ignore it and let it go, because why should you let it go, it’s a totally atrocious depiction, but it’s almost so atrocious that you just kind of have to suspend your disbelief, and besides, this ain’t the only movie that romanticizes Indian life while still managing to be completely inaccurate and offensive. While this is obviously something that needs to be addressed and examined, it’s been addressed and examined countless times before, by authors far more eloquent and qualified to speak on the subject than I am. Check out Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film by Neva Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, or Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film edited by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor. (Yes, that is Sal Mineo on the cover of Hollywood’s Indian, but in another Native American role, in John Ford’s 1964 Western Cheyenne Autumn. Did I mention Sal Mineo was Italian?) Or better yet, check out the new documentary feature Reel Injun by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, featuring interviews with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Jim Jarmusch.

A love story between a boy, his horse, and one terrible wig.

But hey! Let’s talk about Tonka. I’ve probably mentioned before that Sal Mineo is my favorite actor, living or dead, of all time. Kind of an obscure favorite, I know, but it’s been that way for about five years now and it’s kind of a hard thing to put into words. I plan to talk more about it next week when I review Sal Mineo: A Biograghy, the new book by Michael Gregg Michaud. By no means do I think Sal was a perfect actor, but I like watching him act, and I know how hard he worked at it and how seriously he took every role. I’ve learned from Michaud’s biography that Sal hated making this film. He thought playing an Indian in a family-friendly Disney flick was a step down in his career, he fought with his on-screen best friend Rafael Campos, and he shattered a kneecap in a fall from his horse. Yet none of this backstage turmoil shows at all in Sal’s performance. He plays White Bull with heart, optimism, and youthful exuberance; his emotions run the gamut from ecstatic to devastated, and he deftly conveys them all. A lot of his acting is done with only an unpredictable horse as his costar, and even though he grew up in an apartment in the Bronx, Sal looks and acts as though he’s been around equines all his life. It’s a spirited performance that’s fun to watch; his friendship with the horse is heart-warming and charming, and while the material ain’t nothing Oscar-worthy, Sal makes an otherwise bland and forgettable family film into something downright watchable. Plus it’s fairly hilarious to me that White Bull isn’t allowed to wear a shirt until literally the last scene of the film. There is just so much Sal Mineo chest thrust into your face in this movie that you can’t help but be hypnotized by it and learn to love it.

If I were the editor of Tiger Beat magazine, every pinup would just be this photo.

However, the film is so heavy on the White Bull that all the other performances are sort of lost; I’m sure they were good, but I literally cannot remember them. I was never one of those little girls who went through a “horse phase,” but I am an animal lover (to the point where I interned as a zookeeper’s apprentice for six months), though not an animal rights activist. However, films that rely heavily on horses have always made me uncomfortable, especially when the horses are used in battle scenes or are required to fall. For an animal that size, it just seems like such a long way to fall. There is a lot of horse violence here, both perpetrated by humans and by other horses, to the point where I’m not sure I’d want young children to watch it. There are definitely a lot of adorable and funny scenes between White Bull and his horse, though, and the various and sundry horses who portrayed Tonka did an excellent job. (I know that comes from good training, but it’s the horses doing the work!)

Overall it’s a cute film, not as memorable as some other live-action Disney adventure classics like Swiss Family Robinson (1960), but not as forgettable as… that one I’ve forgotten. This was Sal Mineo’s only Disney flick and one of his only family-friendly appearances, so it’s nice to see him in a different kind of role. (I mean, yeah, he’s still kind of a juvenile delinquent here, but he’s an Indian juvenile delinquent, so that’s different, right?) I wouldn’t call it bland and inoffensive, because it’s totally offensive, but at least they try to give the Indians some humanity and make Custer out to be a bigoted monster. It’s a racist film full of brutal animal abuse culminating in a hideous and bloody battle, made for children. An interesting film for the portrait it paints of Disney and American culture at the time, topped off by a lovely star performance from Sal Mineo. It’s not my favorite of Sal’s films, but it’s also not the worst he ever did. I sort of regret paying $30 on eBay for an old rental VHS, but a completest’s gotta do what a completest’s gotta do. Hopefully it’ll someday be released on an official DVD, and when it does I’d say it’s worth a rent.

Tonka (1958) – 3.5/5 stars


  1. So many things about Tonka makes it hard to watch, the racism, cruelty to animals etc…. but as you said, Sal is so cute that it makes the movie semi-watchable!
    Also please be the new editor to Tigerbeat. I need that picture of Sal plastered on my wall.

  2. Kim (the zombie variety)

     /  December 12, 2010

    “If I were the editor of Tiger Beat magazine, every pinup would just be this photo. ” :D :D

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