English aristocrat John Morgan is captured, enslaved and treated like an animal by a Native American tribe. He comes to respect his captors' culture and gain their respect. He is aided in understanding the Sioux by another captive, Batise, the tribe's half-breed fool, who had tried to escape and was hamstrung behind both knees.
Determining that his only chance of freedom is to gain the respect of the tribe, he overcomes his repugnance and kills two warriors from the neighboring enemy Shoshone tribe, which allows him to claim warrior status. After his victory, he proposes marriage to one of the women with the horses taken in battle as bride-price and undergoes painful initiation rites, taking the native name "Shunkawakan" (or "Horse") as his Sioux name.
When one of the warriors takes a vow never to retreat in battle, Morgan's changing perspective is shown, as he turns angrily on the uncomprehending Batise, telling him, "Five years you've lived here, and you've learned nothing about these people – all his death is to you is a means of escape." After successfully helping to fend off an attack by the enemy tribe, he becomes a respected member of the tribe and ultimately their leader.
For the crucial Native American initiation ceremony (Vow To The Sun), wherein actor Richard Harris is hung on pins in his chest, make-up artist John Chambers created a prosthetic chest.
Two sequels to the original movie were made, both with Harris reprising his role:The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976)
Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1983)
The film notably treats both sides dispassionately, from the view of neither the white man nor the American Indian nations, but encompassing both cultures. However, some Indian activists criticized the film harshly. Buffy Sainte Marie said:
"Even the so-called authentic movies like A Man Called Horse — that's the whitest of movies I've ever seen."
Vine Deloria, Jr. said:
"As we learned from movies like A Man Called Horse, the more 'accurate' and 'authentic' a film is said to be, the more extravagant it is likely to be in at least some aspects of its misrepresentation of Indians."
It was the first American Western to attempt to portray the Sioux as the protagonists and eulogize their culture, but fell short with Native American audiences because it still had leading white actors as the main characters for the film to appeal to white audiences.
A Man Called Horse was released to DVD by Paramount Home Entertainment on 29 April 2003 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD and on 31 May 2011 as a Blu-ray disc.