Did the Oscar winning writer of Dances with Wolves draw his inspiration from a ‘Buffalo Bill’ style hero of the Boer War, who led the Irish Brigade against the British Empire?
Colonel John Franklin Blake was a West Point graduate and US 6th cavalry officer, with a distinguished career fighting the Apache wars in Arizona, gave up a civilian career in business and travelled to Africa in pursuit of adventure. His travels in Rhodesia, chronicled in his writings for American and London journals, made him famous.
By the time he reached Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic, shortly after the abortive Jameson Raid, his reputation preceded him. He was a tall, genial man, by all accounts, with ‘a Buffalo Bill look’ about him. He was a favourite with Boer society ladies and a ‘jolly good fellow‘.
The first Irish Brigade was organized, in Johannesburg by emigrant Fenian and Mayo born, John McBride but command of the volunteer Irish brigade was given to Blake, with McBride assuming the rank of Major, as his second in command.
Blake later published an account of his adventures in South Africa, A West Pointer with the Boers.
Now, the reason that prompted this research was a remark made by Dances with Wolves’ lead and director, Kevin Costner, on the Graham Norton Show.
The writer, of course, was novelist and screenwriter, Michael Blake, who went on to win an Oscar for his adaptation of his own novel, Dances with Wolves. Now Costner’s version of the story of their relationship was slightly truncated, probably because he’s told the story so often but also because he wanted it to fit in to the context of the point he was making.
In essence, while telling the story of how his most successful films he ever made were first rejected by Hollywood and then, through his own belief, sacrifice and efforts, they became hits. Blake was a writer he’d known since the, then unknown Costner, appeared in the Blake written, Stacy’s Knights, in 1983. Then, while Costner’s career began its rise and rise to the pinnacle of his first Oscar with Dances with Wolves in 1990, Blake’s career remained so much in the doldrums, he was sleeping on friends’ couches, Costner’s in particular.
It was then that Costner exercised some tough love and told his friend to stop bitching and moaning and get out there and get writing. In particular, Costner encouraged him to work on the screenplay of his own, relatively forgotten novel, Dances with Wolves, an account of a US cavalry officer, living alone in a frontier wilderness and befriending wolves and native Americans.
And that was the trigger for me, because I had read Colonel John F. Blake’s A West Pointer with the Boers and remembered, in particular, his introduction. Although born in Missouri, Blake’s family moved to Texas. And there, he wrote, ‘I first saw light, as far as I can remember.’ Growing up on a cattle and horse ranch he became ‘fairly well acquainted with the character and habits of horses and cattle,’ he wrote, ‘happy were those days of loneliness and ignorance spent on those far stretching plains, where roamed hundreds of thousands of horses, cattle and buffalo.’If you close your eyes, you can almost envisage scenes of wide open plains and charging herds of buffalo, as in Dances with Wolves.
Blake then went to Arkansas University before getting a cadet commission to West Point, graduating as a second lieutenant in 1880. His first commission was served in the Arizona Apache wars. Under General Crook, he was put in charge of the Apache scouts’ division, with which he ‘roamed about the mountains’ until 1885. After a short spell in cavalry training in Fort Leavenworth, he was promoted to 1st lieutenant and posted to New Mexico, where he was put in charge of Navajo Scouts. After four years there, he got bored and quit the army.
So take this a step further and have a look at some photos of Colonel J.F. Blake and Hollywood screenwriter, Michael Blake.
Taking this a step further and this is just conjecture, since I have no definitive confirmation of the relationship between the two, but one of Michael Blake’s subsequent novels, Into the Stars, tells the tale of a soldier in WW1 and his relationship with his horse when they find themselves stranded in No Man’s Land and have to find their way home, to safety. The young soldier’s name is Ledyard Dixon and Ledyard, by coincidence or design, was also the name of Colonel John Blake’s son, born in 1889.
Of course, this could all be a load of rubbish. Michael Blake, the author, was born Michael Webb and took his name as a writer, from his mother, Sally Blake. He also told interviewers, following the success of Dances with Wolves, that he first became inspired about the plight of American Indians by reading Dee Brown’s seminal, ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.’
Michael Blake died, last year, in Tucson, Arizona, at the age of 69 after a long illness. He was acclaimed, not just for his writing, but also his humanitarian and environmental work on behalf of Native Americans and America’s wild horses. I have written emails to his estate in an attempt to find out if there is, or ever was, any connection between the two Blakes. If you have any information, let me know. I hope, if nothing else, Michael Blake would find this story amusing.