She is one of the best-known figures of the Idaho Gold Rush era, but even her name is a matter of contention. She started life as Lalu Nathoy—maybe—but the rustic miners called her “Polly”—and it stuck. There might be debate over biographical details, but she is widely recognized as strong frontier women. History and legend mix within reason throughout Nancy Kelly’s freshly 4K-restored 1990 film, Thousand Pieces of Gold, based on Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s biographical novel, which opens virtually today.
Technically, Nathoy’s father sold her into debt-slavery, but we probably shouldn’t judge him to harshly, given her nomadic family’s dire poverty. Nevertheless, the Chinese who trafficked her into San Francisco looked down on her, because of her Northern Chinese heritage. Jim, a Chinese pack-mule trader, purchases for resale to Hong King, who is supposedly her new husband, but he is really just a brothel owner, operating in a hardscrabble gold rush town.
Nathoy manages to avoid a life of sexual servitude through sheer force of will and the support of a few townsfolk who still take the abolition of slavery seriously. Most notably, this includes Charlie Bemis, a former Union prisoner-of-war, who also happens to be Hong King’s landlord. He is clearly attracted to “Polly,” but he is a gentleman, at least by the rough standards of the frontier.
Anne Makepeace’s adapted screenplay prints a lot of the legends surrounding Lalu/Polly, but that makes obvious sense from a narrative standpoint. It can even be defended from a historical perspective, because all the legends and lies surrounding figures of the Old West have become just as important as the verifiable facts.
Rosalind Chao (probably still best-known to geeks as Keiko O’Brien on Star Trek Next Gen & Deep Space Nine) is terrific as “Polly,” convincingly balancing her strength and vulnerability. Likewise, Chris Cooper is perfectly cast as the gruff but sensitive Bemis, an early example of the kind of role that became his stock-and-trade after Lone Star. Above all else, Thousand Pieces is a romance, driven by their highly unconventional courtship, but Kelly and her co-leads never resort to cheap sentimentality. In fact, they banish all the potential romantic clichés off-screen and out-of-view. Plus, Dennis Dun adds further messily human dimensions to the drama with his notable supporting work as Jim the trader.
Before becoming a documentarian, Kelly worked as a real-deal ranch hand, where she first heard her subject’s story. As you might expect, Kelly’s affinity for frontier women is clear throughout the film. She takes no prisoners depicting the racist anti-Chinese laws of the era, but the central relationship still overpowers everything else. It is a worthy film that deserved greater attention when it was first released, so it is nice to see Kino Lorber giving a second life to the restoration. Highly recommended, Thousand Pieces of Gold releases virtually today (4/24), in conjunction with BAM.