Redford's passion Actor presses case of Leonard Peltier

NEW YORK — New York -- It is a Robert Redford movie . . . without Robert Redford.

At least, not the grandly romantic Robert Redford character who loves and litters leading ladies around the globe, from Barbra Streisand on a New York street to Meryl Streep on an African plain. Or even the guy's guy Robert Redford, merrily capering with best buddy Paul Newman or proving manly mettle as The Downhill Racer, The Natural or The Candidate.


Rather, "Incident at Oglala" is Robert Redford, just another concerned citizen -- albeit one with the kind of Hollywood star power to get this small, decidedly non-commercial documentary made in the first place.

While Mr. Redford doesn't appear on screen in "Incident at Oglala" -- he narrates and was executive producer -- the usually press-wary celebrity has been leading a media campaign to publicize the case of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian who some believe has been wrongly jailed for the killing of two FBI agents on a South Dakota Indian reservation in 1975. Last week, at a press conference in Washington with Mr. Redford, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., called for a reopening of the case.


"I developed a passion about this person -- not an obsession, as some have said -- to help him get a fair trial," Mr. Redford told a group of reporters here recently. "It's not my 'JFK.' That's not the way I see it. . . . I'm just shedding light on a system that we're supposed to be proud of. I'm just putting the facts down in a way that allows the public to be the judge."

At 54, Robert Redford is a weather-burnished version of the golden boy he so frequently has played during his long movie-making career. With his crinkly-eyed, room-illuminating smile and a head of impossibly sun-streaked blond hair, he still has It -- an undeniable star quality that created a near mob scene as he emerged from the movie's premiere here two weeks ago. ("Incident at Oglala" opens in Washington on Friday and in Baltimore, tentatively, next month.)

Dressed casually in a black polo shirt, khaki pants and tan cowboy boots, he was warm and low-key, as willing to talk about this movie as he has been reluctant to hype more traditional star turns such as his last one, "Havana," a failed "Casablanca"-wannabe released in 1990.

"I just don't believe in talking all the time," Mr. Redford said of his reluctance to promote every movie. "I don't think people are interested in hearing me all the time."

With "Oglala," Mr. Redford takes the stance that he doesn't know whether Mr. Peltier, 47, is innocent -- only that he didn't receive a fair trial and deserves either a new one or a presidential pardon that would release him after 16 years in jail.

He sees a "direct parallel" between Leonard Peltier and Rodney King; between the daily violence, poverty and alienation from the "white" system of justice that characterizes both Indian reservations and inner cities like south-central Los Angeles.

"The larger question is, are minorities treated differently in this country?" Mr. Redford said. "I think what happened in L.A. was an outcry of pain and anger and fear, and it finally coalesced. That kind of combustion creates a new atmosphere. People are so frustrated, they're really paying a lot of attention now."

The Peltier case may seem like just the latest cause to capture Hollywood's whimsy in these post-"Dances With Wolves" times: The recent film "Thunderheart" is a fictionalized account of the same incident (and shares with "Oglala" the same director, Michael Apted), and Oliver Stone is doing his own "JFK"-like number on the case. But Mr. Redford says his history with Indian issues in general and the Peltier case in particular dates back a long way.


"My involvement with Indian affairs goes back to childhood, to when I was 5 years old," Mr. Redford says, pointing to a family trip that took him from California to Texas through Indian country. "I was totally taken with the place and the people. For some reason, I had a tremendous connection that started then."

Mr. Redford said he first became interested in making a film about Mr. Peltier around 1980, when writer Peter Matthiessen showed him a manuscript of "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse."

"[Mr. Matthiessen] had heard a rumor that Leonard was going to be killed in prison. If I went into Marion [federal penitentiary] and made a to-do about making a film of his life, it might thwart the plot," Mr. Redford said. "I wasn't sure if the rumor was true or not, but I couldn't take a chance.

"I was taken aback by it," he said of his meeting with Mr. Peltier. "I was really taken aback by his inner strength and his dignity. Even then I was aware of the unjust circumstances that put him in prison."

Still, Mr. Redford began to realize that he couldn't make the kind of movie he initially envisioned: a sort of "Rashomon" in which he would track the lives of the various participants and how they converged on June 26, 1975.

It was on that day that two FBI agents drove onto the Pine Ridge Reservation to arrest a man for assault and theft. A gunfight ensued, with numerous police and other Indians joining in the fray, and the agents were killed. After one of the largest manhunts in FBI history, four men were charged. Charges against one were dropped, two were tried and acquitted, and the fourth, Mr. Peltier, was ultimately convicted and sentenced to two life terms. "Oglala" delves into several controversial aspects of the case, including disputed ballistics evidence and a witness who changed her story.


Mr. Redford believes the case needs to be viewed in the larger context of Indian government tensions of the time, coming as it did after numerous murders and beatings of Indians on the reservation, allegedly at the hands of the government-sponsored tribal leadership and its GOON (for Guardians of the Oglala Nation) squad.

"People need to know there was a civil war going on within our borders that was snuffed by the government," Mr. Redford said. "People just wanted to live on their land in dignity. Their very culture was under assault. That was a war zone."

After meeting Mr. Peltier, Mr. Redford tried to lobby various government officials to reopen the case -- but to no avail. Other projects distracted him from the case -- his Sundance film institute in Utah, for example, as well as his own acting and directing career. Then, several years ago, producer-screenwriter Arthur Chobanian approached him and suggested that a documentary rather than a feature film was the way to go, and he agreed.

"Then we began the long journey to get this film made. We ran into as many obstacles as Leonard did," Mr. Redford said, citing roadblocks such as getting into prison to interview Mr. Peltier and finding financing for such a non-mainstream movie.

Mr. Redford ultimately "piggybacked" the movie onto another, more commercial one -- the upcoming "A River Runs Through It," based on Norman Maclean's legendary fly-fishing-as-life book.

Now that "Incident at Oglala" has opened, Mr. Redford hopes viewers will be moved to call for a reopening of Mr. Peltier's case. And he hopes one particular person will see the film -- or at least act on its message.


"On pure terms of compassion," he said, "I hope the president will look at this."