Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) and Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), looking glum – as they might in the circumstances
Sometimes I feel sorry for film reviewers. If you have to respond with a tight deadline to watching a film like Hostiles it must be very difficult. Here is a film which is beautifully presented with some excellent performances but also with a very iffy script and some equally questionable didactic urges. Do you slam the film or try to justify it? An experienced reviewer like Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound (January 2018) can just about get away with a negative response slightly sweetened by discussion of the good points. But I’ve also seen some 10/10 user reviews on IMDb. I confess that I was a little suspicious when the ads for the film in the UK quoted glowing reviews from several publications I didn’t recognise.
Fortunately, I don’t have to score the film. Instead, I’ll try to explain what I think it’s doing and what the problems are. However, I am intrigued by the US companies who financed this $40 million independent film. It was picked up by Entertainment Film Distributors for selected UK multiplexes but I fear that its pacing alone will deter the popcorn crowd.
Wes Studi as Yellow Hawk tries to give advice about dealing with Comanche rebels
The first issue with the film is its location in the history of the West and the Western. We are supposedly in 1892 in New Mexico, which seems rather late to be dealing with Comanche rebels and a journey to escort a Cheyenne warrior and his family from prison in the South West to his homeland in Montana after seven years in captivity. The prisoner is Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) who has terminal cancer and the escort is to be led by a reluctant veteran ‘Indian fighter’, Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) on a last mission before his retirement. Soon after the party leaves the fort, they come across Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the only survivor of a raid by those Comanche rebels on a settler family’s homestead. The party will gather (and lose) members as it encounters various groups on its way to Montana and a final showdown. The party that left the fort included a ‘Buffalo soldier’, another hard-bitten Indian hunter, a raw French recruit and a greenhorn Lieutenant – a generic grouping for a Western narrative. The whole set-up seemed wrong in terms of historical period to me and when I came across some pre-publicity for the film which dated the events as 1882 that made more sense. To put this in context, the major battle of Little Big Horn and its consequences covers the period from 1876 to 1881 (the Northern Cheyenne fought with the Lakota of Sitting Bull). After that the focus on the final acts of the Indian Wars was on the Apache and the tribes of the South West.
Rosalee (who has lost her family to Comanche rebels) becomes protector of Cheyenne women and child
But perhaps this doesn’t matter. Much more important is the exploration of the guilt of the coloniser which in this film seems to be represented in ways which are perhaps easily dismissed as anachronistic. Several of the (white) characters seem to perform an abrupt volte face, switching from hatred of ‘savages’ to true respect for Cheyenne culture. These questions are the fulcrum for readings of the film which veer from condemnation for being too politically correct and turning away from the genre towards being accepting of our contemporary views and a denial of historical perspective. The film takes itself very seriously and is in many ways wedded to gloom. It begins with a D. H. Lawrence quote about the American soul – “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted” (Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923). Characters discuss their faith and one concludes that “God is blind” to what has happened in the West. Before I saw the film, somebody described it as violent. Many people are killed in the film, but not as many as in some other Hollywood action pictures. It is the film’s own seriousness (emphasised by sparse and spare dialogue and a Max Richter score) which gives the deaths a proper importance in the narrative.
The film is written, directed and produced by Scott Cooper. I did see Cooper’s first film, the country music romance Crazy Heart (US 2010), but not his next two, Out of the Furnace (2013) and Black Mass (2015). Reading reviews, it would appear that Cooper is interested in strong character-driven narratives with a measured pace (Cooper was first an actor). He certainly uses genre narratives but appears not want to consciously work with or against genre expectations. On this basis, the meaning of Hostiles is to be found in Christian Bale’s character (Bale was also the lead in Out of the Furnace). But in relation to a genre as deeply embedded in the American psyche as the Western, Bale’s character is inevitably going to be read in terms of specific earlier Westerns and their characters. On this score, Cooper, in an interview with MovieMaker magazine seems to be confused in his understanding of the Western and what he is trying to achieve (though the interview is not well sub-edited):
I don’t think much in terms of genre . . . while it is set in the American West, in 1892, I wanted it to be more about a human journey, a psychological journey. If anything it’s a psychological western in the vein of Anthony Mann. There were a couple of shots where I paid homage to John Ford’s The Searchers. I don’t think it’s a western, it has more in common with Joseph Conrad or Larry McMurtry or Louis L’Amour.
It’s that last part that baffles me. Perhaps he said “Conrad not McMurtry or L’Amour”, since the latter are two of the best-known writers of Western novels.
The five soldiers who start the journey. “Who will survive?” might be the genre question.
At this point I should state that the real strength of the film is the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi who worked on earlier films by Cooper and also Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner. Here in an interview he recounts how he and Cooper worked only on location and how he changed film stock to deal with dramatic changes in weather conditions. The results are stunning and they immediately lead us to think about Anthony Mann Westerns and possibly the Peckinpah of Ride the High Country (1962). But as Cooper suggests, the central emotional trigger is John Wayne’s performance as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). Cooper even goes as far as claiming that the end of his film in some way responds to the famous ending of The Searchers. I won’t spoil what happens in Cooper’s film. It is interesting, but doesn’t have the power of Ford’s ending. Ethan Edwards is one of the great creations of the Hollywood Western. As Martin Scorsese says about him, he’s not a villain but he’s despicable. Ethan’s hatred of the Comanche is deeply rooted but it is accompanied by cultural knowledge about his enemy. He can keep his anger under control when faced with Martin Pawley and his own niece Lucy, both of whom are ‘tainted’ in his eyes by their links to Native Americans. But control is not enough to allow Ethan back into the American family/community. He remains as the French title of the film suggests, a ‘Prisoner of the Desert’.
Here is what Cooper says about his narrative (the script was worked up from an original by Donald E. Stewart, a well-known screenwriter who died in 1999:
I placed the action from New Mexico to Montana. It would allow me to speak to what’s happening in America today, in terms of race. The racial divide in our country is widening. We’re living in polarized times, and I wanted to speak to this notion that we need to better understand one another and to reconcile. I think America needs to heal. My characters’ journey from New Mexico to Montana becomes an enlightenment. I wanted to speak to what I see is an America looming down a dark and dangerous path.
Blocker at the Cheyenne burial ground. Like Ethan Edwards, he knows something of his enemy’s culture – and his language
Ethan Edwards in 1956 was a complex character stirring up questions about race and racial difference in an America still to experience the full force of Civil Rights. Bale’s Captain Blocker faces similar questions in 2017 when America is a very different (but still conflicted) society. I don’t feel that Blocker, as written, can carry or express the emotions that Cooper has in mind. Here is a final extract from Cooper’s interview, in response to those comments about the violence in the film:
. . . the American West, while majestic, was very violent. As wars generally begin, it’s all about resources and land. The United States government was trying to impose its will on Indigenous peoples. There is a dark and unforgivable past of attempted genocide. I wanted the movie to be punctuated by moments of extreme violence. I abhor violence, but these very violent and vivid encounters on the road end up informing the characters emotionally and psychologically in a way that really spoke to the difficulties in trying to achieve Manifest Destiny.
‘Manifest Destiny’ was the belief in the United States that ‘Americans’ (i.e. of white European stock) were destined to spread across the United States, settling the land and creating a free society which persecution had denied them or their forefathers in Europe. This would inevitably mean annexing the lands of Native Americans. Ironically, in 1892 when Captain Blocker’s orders come directly from Republican President Benjamin Harrison, the Republican platform for the November presidential election re-affirmed a belief in that ‘Manifest Destiny’ which was beginning to fade. The Republicans lost the election but returned in 1896 when the ‘Western frontier’ was effectively ‘civilised’. American expansionism then turned overseas to the Spanish-American Wars and the pursuit of American power across the rest of the Americas.
I think my final thoughts are that Scott Cooper may be sincere in what he is attempting, but that he is trying to do too much and perhaps he needs to spend more time watching Westerns. But then is possibly better to attempt too much rather than to succumb to the limited aims of much of contemporary American filmmaking. I was never bored by Hostiles and those landscapes are amazing. The trailer below does include a ‘Searchers moment’ and some of the terrific ‘figures in a landscape’ cinematography.