For the first 15 minutes, "Windwalker" creaks along self-consciously, with English actor Trevor Howard and a couple of Hollywood High School kids posing as Indians.

Suddenly, without warning, it takes off. And never quits.

There is action, plenty of it, and some really rough-looking hand-to-hand fighting, droll humor and most of all a certain sweetness that lifts it far above so many of today's computer-souled films. Its stunning wintry scenes in Utah's Wasatch National Forest bring to mind the quiet poetry and mythic power of "Jeremiah Johnson," a great film sadly overlooked.

"Windwalker" was shown here this week as the climax of the American Indian Film Institute's convention. (The institute was founded in 1975 in San Francisco.) The picture captured many awards at the institute's festival this year. There have been objections to using the blue-eyed Howard as the grizzled old star of the movie, but this minor problem fades quickly as the story takes hold.

It is 1797. A band of Cheyennes is heading south through the snow, but the craggy patriach dies, apparently, and is left on an Indian death perch. The family is attacked by marauding Crows, and the windwalker unaccountably revives and comes back to organize the resistance.

There is a lost love, a lost son restored and some other features that sound hopelesssly soppy in the retelling. This is, after all, an Arthur ("Wilderness Family") Dubs production. But it works. It works just fine. (

One lovely moment comes when the old man wakes up in his aerial catafalque. "Grandfather," he mutters, "this is a good joke . . ."

The details, down to the Cheyenne and Crow dialogue -- with subtitles -- are elaborately accurate, one reason it is so highly regarded by the institute. aThe only sign of the white man is a Hudson Bay striped trade blanket worn by one Indian, a nice touch.

K-B theater officials said they have not yet decided when "Windwalker" will open in the Washington area. It can't be too soon. A charming and satisfying movie.