You may not recognize the name Chief Dan George, but you’d definitely remember the proud, parchment skinned face, creased with more crevasses than the surface of Europa. Probably best known as Dustin Hoffman’s adopted Native American grandfather in “Little Big Man,” the Canadian born actor and longtime entertainer went on after that film to a stellar Hollywood career. More importantly, not only did his roles shatter long-running negative Indian stereotypes in film and television, but he became a respected and beloved spokesman for the plight of the Indian people as well.
Loretta Todd pays her respects to the late Chief, who died in 1981 at the age of 82, in this loving homage of a documentary. “It Is A Good Day” recounts the Chief’s early years first as a logger and then a Vancouver dock worker for nearly twenty five years. His six surviving children reminisce about how their dad turned the family into a traveling troupe of performers known as “Chief Dan George and His Indian Entertainers.” Sort of a Native American Partridge Family, the “Entertainers” criss-crossed the Northwest for ten years, performing a mixture of traditional songs and dances with contemporary material at local gatherings. From here, it was a short leap to Canadian TV where he soon caught the eye of Hollywood executives. A Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Little Big Man” in 1971 launched his film career, which leapt to even greater heights with his 1976 performance as Clint Eastwood’s ironic and mischievous, stovetop hat-wearing Indian foil in “The Outlaw Jose Wales.”
“It Is A Good Day” is a solid, if unspectacular look at a man who seems to be revered by all who came into contact with him. In addition to the
Chief’s children, Hoffman, “Little Big Man” director Arthur Penn and Canadian director Phil Keatley all pay their respects to him in glowing terms.
Which is actually a bit of a problem as this film practically beatifies the guy. No one will dispute, at least in this film, that the Chief genuinely seemed like an honorable and decent man. Yet, no one’s a saint. His intermittent struggles with alcohol are only briefly touched on while his Indian activism seems to have occurred in a vacuum. If we don’t know who he pissed off or whose eyes he opened, it’s harder to gauge what effect he had on society.
Chief Dan George was far too noble and important a figure to be subjected to, say, the formulaic angst of VH-1’s “Behind the Music.” While “It Is A Good Day” avoids this pitfall, it also lacks a bit of the gravitas necessary to be a truly well-rounded exploration of an honorable and intriguing man.