The Flight of the Nez Perce is a spec script that, by Hollywood standards, should not work. It’s more than 130 pages. It’s an extremely violent period piece, where half the dialogue is subtitled. It also asks for a cast of hundreds, and probably couldn’t be produced for less than $120 million. Normally, these are all choices I would suggest screenwriters avoid. And yet, I still hope that a miracle happens, and this movie gets made.
I confess the main reason I picked up this script was because one of the author’s other works, Desperate Hours, currently holds the No. 1 spot on Carson’s top 25 list. But, after I finished it, I read it a second time because I loved it. Despite its flaws, The Flight of the Nez Perce is an excellent piece of writing. Let’s find out how this script breaks through the chains of industry expectations.
The year is 1877, and it’s a time of cultural unrest in America. The Civil War may be over now, but there are still people in this country fighting and shedding blood, to protect their way of life. After living in balance with the natural world for hundreds of years, everything is changing for the Indian people. The white men have come to these shores to stay, and their presence spreads across the land like a sickness. The symbol of the white man’s reach is the steam locomotive, which the Indians call “the iron monster.” The Indians have come to learn that, when they see thick plumes of train smoke rising above the trees, it means the white man has arrived, to take them from their homes. Sometimes never to be seen again. Through their actions, the white men stir a combustible mixture of fear and anger inside the Indians’ hearts. Until one day, beside the waters of the Little Bighorn River in Montana, the match is lit.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn arguably becomes the worst Indian-related massacre in American history. Chief Sitting Bull and his Sioux tribe kill Captain George Custer and all his men, winning a major victory against the U.S. army. The outcome of the battle does a couple noteworthy things. First, the army takes a more aggressive stance on handling Indian affairs. As General William Sherman says at one point, they cannot afford another Little Bighorn. The other thing that happens is, warriors from other Indian tribes hear of Sitting Bull’s victory, and become even more determined to defeat the white man. Basically, relations between the two cultures just got a whole lot worse.
This all adds up to bad news for Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce tribe, which has lived in relative peace, in the Wollowa Valley of the Pacific Northwest. Joseph sees war as a failure of mankind, and will do anything he can to stay clear of it. This seems impossible, though, when Red Grizzly, a Nez Perce warrior, brings news of the Little Bighorn massacre. Red Grizzly wants to follow Sitting Bull’s example, and take the fight directly to the white men. Joseph turns down the suggestion, not wanting to put the tribe in harm’s way. But Joseph soon understands he can’t stop the inevitable.
Soon after Little Bighorn, General Sherman receives orders from the U.S. president to remove the Nez Perce from the Wollowa Valley, and send them to a reservation in Idaho. And, if the Nez Perce refuse to leave, then the army has permission to use any means necessary. Why is the government suddenly interested in the Nez Perce? Aside from wanting to keep the Indians under control, it turns out there could be significant gold deposits right under the tribe’s feet. And the white men want to get their hands on that gold at any cost. So, Sherman sends Civil War veteran General Howard and his regiment to run this campaign against the Nez Perce.
Meanwhile, tensions are heating up near the Nez Perce settlement. The white people have built a town nearby, and it’s been difficult for everyone to be neighbors. For example, one of the tribesmen, Eagle Rock, comes across a riderless horse during a walk in the forest. Eagle Rock tries to befriend the horse, thinking it doesn’t have an owner. But it turns out that it belongs to an unfriendly white man named Larry Ott. Larry sees Eagle Rock touching his horse, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Because they don’t understand each other’s language, a fight breaks out between Eagle Rock, Larry, and Larry’s friends. Eagle Rock is shot to death.
Eagle Rock’s murder sparks rage among some of the Nez Perce warriors. The warriors, led by Red Grizzly, go out one night to kill Larry Ott for revenge. The only problem is, once they get to Larry’s cabin, no one’s there. Larry probably knew he was in trouble and left his home for good. Not happy with this situation, the warriors find another white home close by. At this point, it doesn’t matter who they kill, as long as their victims have pale faces. The warriors kill several men at this house, and Red Grizzly rapes a young mother. The mother escapes and notifies the authorities of the horror that just happened. She also asks General Howard to kill all the Indians.
Chief Joseph and the rest of the tribe learn of the atrocities that Red Grizzly and the other warriors committed. Joseph takes these men into custody and plans to deliver them to the white people, so they may determine the punishment. The next morning, Joseph meets with white army, to turn over the warriors and talk about moving his tribe to Idaho. Unfortunately, during this meeting, a snake startles one of the Indian’s horses. When the horse rears up, one of the U.S. soldiers thinks it’s an attack, and fires at the Indian sitting on the horse. This causes a bloody battle to break out. In the end, the white men are soundly defeated, and the Nez Perce didn’t suffer a single casualty. It’s a victory, but the damage is done. The Indians think there’s no chance for peace now, so they begin a 1,300-mile run for Canada, in hopes of finding sanctuary with Sitting Bull’s tribe. General Howard and his army have no intentions of letting the Nez Perce escape, so they chase them every step of the way. The Nez Perce win several battles on their flight North, using tactics that are studied to this day. But because their hardships become too much to take – the loss of life, the starvation – they finally surrender to the white men, just forty miles away from the Canadian border.
There are a lot of reasons why this script is so good. One of the biggest reasons is that the author knows how to create empathetic characters. Without empathy, the character probably won’t connect with the audience. This doesn’t mean the character has to be likable at all times. But, it does mean that we, as readers and viewers, should be able to see the world through that character’s eyes. I think the writer accomplishes this goal. For example, it would’ve been easy to make the U.S. Army the indisputable villains. But the author is too generous to leave it at that. He paid special attention to the army’s high-ranking officers. I came to respect General Howard, in particular, because he eventually grieved for Joseph and the Nez Perce, and wished he could atone for his behavior. That kind of nuance is missing in a lot of antagonists I’ve seen. So when I find one that’s still in touch with his humanity, it stands out. Having said all that, my favorite character turned out to be the most likable of all. Chief Joseph brought tears to my eyes. He meets my definition of a good man. He wanted to live the rest of his life with his friends and family in peace. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt another human being, but he was willing to, if that’s what it took to save his people. Even in his defeat, he was dignified, courageous, and true to himself. Joseph has a place in my heart, and he’s welcome to stay there as long as he wants. I’d love to see more scripts use characters like this.
Another element that made this demanding script more enjoyable was the massive scope of the story. We get epic battles, forbidden love, fellowship, betrayal, and, just when we need it most, mercy. And it all takes place on the vast, untamed landscapes of the American West. So, if there are some elements in your script that are obscure or complex, you can balance those things with a few mainstream qualities. Especially if you’re writing a period piece, it can’t come across as a dusty history lesson. The audience, above all, needs to be moved and entertained.
Perhaps the most important reason why this script works so well is the way it’s structured. A lot of scripts these days hit the ground running, and they never stop. The writer, E. Nicholas Mariani, structures his scripts in a way I don’t see many other people use. He implements a slow buildup that eventually explodes into a breathtaking third act. In “Flight,” he uses the first act to introduce us to the many people of the Nez Perce tribe. He also introduces us to the U.S. Army, and explains why they plan to move the tribe off their land. A lot of story points are setup in the first act, so the first 20 or 30 pages are a bit slow. But Mariani is willing to take that risk because he knows the ending will mean more, if we feel something for these people. The next two acts are constructed around the battles between the Nez Perce and the U.S. Army. The beauty of this approach is that each battle sequence requires greater and greater sacrifices from both sides of the war. The losses of the Nez Perce become more meaningful, as the order of deaths starts at the less important people, and moves up to the most beloved. The environmental obstacles also become more dangerous with every step. In one scene, the Nez Perce have to climb a mountain during a mudslide. And then in a later scene, they have to fight the army in a blinding snowstorm. The conflict is elegantly designed like a rollercoaster; it’s always moving up the hill. And with the third act, we come careening down the other side.
Act three is what really made the script for me. If you’ve ever taken an American History class, you probably know what happened to the Indians. The story of these people is almost unbearably sad, and that’s how I felt when I watched Joseph surrender his tribe to the army. By this point, the Nez Perce are completely exhausted and miserable. After the final catastrophic battle, the “flight” is over and they lost. When Joseph gives his immortal speech of surrender, I felt his pain deep in my bones, because Mariani structured his script to build up to that final climax. It was glorious to behold. Because of this script, I find myself supporting the slow build. If it’s done right, it helps setup the ending more effectively than a shallow first act would.
Of course, no script is perfect, even this one. I’d argue that the dialogue could use some more sepia tones. Like his other script, Desperate Hours, the characters sometimes sound too modern for the times they live in. My humble suggestion is to focus a rewrite on giving more period flavor and texture to the voices of these amazing people.
And, of course, there’s the issue of the large cast. I’m honestly torn on this one. I kept a head count, and there were at least thirteen characters introduced by name in the first five pages. In most cases, I’d highly recommend keeping the cast list down to five or six major characters. Not only is it hard for the reader to keep track of so many people, it’s hard for the writer to develop all of them with such a limited page count. But this script has the one exception for a big cast that I can think of. The third act would not be as good without it. It just wouldn’t. The power and devastation of the third act is largely achieved from realizing how many people died since the first page. If the cast had been smaller, the effect would have shrunk, as well.
In the end, The Flight of the Nez Perce was more than just another script to read. It was a full-blown experience. I was so tied up in the story that, when I finished the last page, I felt emotions I couldn’t quite explain. I was bruised, heartbroken, and appreciative all at once. Is there a name for such a thing? Yes, there are problems in this draft worth fixing. But, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, the problems aren’t what I’ll remember. What I’ll remember is the way this script made me feel. Unless something better comes along in the next couple months, this is my script of the year.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: If your concept is expensive and noncommercial, be very sure that it’s an idea you’re passionate about. The Flight of the Nez Perce was on the Black List two years ago and, to my knowledge, hasn’t sold yet. Sadly, it’s not too surprising because the logline is a hard sell. In his 2010 Black List commentary, Carson himself said that this script “takes the cake for being the most boring sounding script on the list.” And yet this script is amazing. The author obviously had a strong feeling about the idea and put everything he had into it. So, at the very least, this is an incredible calling card script. But if your goal is to write a spec that’s an easy sell, it makes sense to use a concept with a mainstream hook and a modest budget.