It’s been a few years since I first saw Bone Tomahawk (2015) at the cinema, my friend enjoyed it far more than me. I could see by his visceral reaction, definitely a horror fan who had been thrilled by the dark experience of this Horror-Western. My mind was still lingering on the graphic images of violence, the splitting of a man down through the legs after a scalping. Not your average western in terms of the images that you’d generally get to see. As I reflect back on this film I am again reminded of how it references The Searchers (1956), how the themes more so in the case of this later film have been weaved into this captive rescue Western. I needed to revisit to build on my understanding of what’s become an interesting oddity in the genre.
My original review was based on my initial thoughts less than 24 hours from taking in the film, I don’t have that experience so much to rely on now. I came to this viewing with an expectation of knowing that image would be waiting for me. That didn’t put me off either, instead I was getting myself ready and excited to be taken back to those moments in the screen 3 years ago. I remembered the lines about how many arteries in the throat that needed to be cut in order to kill and a man, delivered so dry as a normal conversation, all part of the job that was so sloppily carried out by two robberies who got what they had coming to them. In-fact most of the dialogue’s written to reflect more the time period than contemporary America. Laced with a sense of decency and politeness that would usually be found back East, civilisation is making its way West.
The opening of the film takes us briefly into this dark world of cannibalism, meeting a dark figure in an out of focus shot that gruesomely kills the older of the two fools to walk through the sacred ground of the not so sacred Troglodytes that roam this region of the Wild West. Before cutting back to Spring Hope, a frontier town that where we meet the main characters of the film. The slow pacing of the dialogue reflects the atmosphere of this almost too polite town. Arthur (Patrick Wilson) man laid up on the sofa for 12 weeks with a broken leg faces a period of great boredom if it wasn’t for his nurse wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) doing her best to take his mind off the pain. Still enjoying his marital duties in one scene, telling us this is not your standard Western, we’re being taken into the domesticated West where couples could make a life for themselves. Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) is a law man whose known to be trigger-happy when pushed. Joined by his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) making up a classic double act. We also meet the Ethan Edwards of the film Mr Brooder (Matthew Fox) a gentleman on the surface alone, go a little deeper and you find a racist with a gun that’s waiting for an excuse to shoot them dead.
With the scene set, there’s still no sign of these Troglodytes until the next morning after a black stable boy has been found brutally murdered and the jail found completely empty. Civilsation has been tainted by the dark forces which we are still yet to see or fully understand. We get a brief description from resident Native American The Professor (Zahn McClarnon) who shares all he knows about this dark off-shoot of a Native American tribe that no-one dares mention. Taking a dark path that even he won’t take to help them. Here the use of the Native American’s used to replace the radical Islamist terrorists who have been radicalised and subverted their own holy book The Quran to explain their insane actions upon the rest of the world. The only Native present in the film’s seen as a respected part of the community that no longer sees him as a threat, instead he’s been assimilated onto their world.
Unlike the Troglodytes that we are still yet to meet. The four men we met earlier set off into an eerily cold Wild West, scenery we know to know to be synonymous with the genre yet there’s something different in the air this time. We have no soundtrack to accompany this wide open space, just our thoughts of the impending danger they are about to find. First having to contend with the stubborn Arthur who shouldn’t have left his home, wanting to find his wife. Whilst his old rival Brooder feels duty bound to rescue her too. Whilst the sheriff and deputy buddy act gets underway. Hunt tries to keep them moving and in line, Russell really suits this role, as he swagger’s around the wide open landscape, it like he’s come from that time period. Again playing the leader, whilst Jenkins Chicory is a beautiful homage to a Walter Brennan type chatting his way through the nervous wait of the long journey.
Our wait is a long one, it’s painfully nail-biting at times as we finally enter the caves of the Troglodytes, it’s not long until they are first ambushed after seeing such a hopeful start to the rescue mission that for a while goes so terribly wrong. The two survivors join Samantha in a cave of torture, there’s no other words for it, just waiting for the inevitable. If not for the limping husband Arthur who by rights should have been killed by now hobbles along to save the day. What they see confounds their belief system, members of the Christian community unable to comprehend what theses cannibals are doing. Survival is the only way forward, it’s gruesome for everyone who have to make choices they would never consider back home.
My thoughts on the connection to The Searchers is somewhat different, there is a search which is more defined and much more restricted, no scope for the open vastness of the mythical space such as Monument Valley. We have a more open discussion between the characters on racism. The era of hating the Indian is over in this Western, it’s time to focus on the future, find this relic and rescue the defenceless woman, who this time can talk back. The heroes (if you can call them that) are shown and seen to be interacting in the others environment, far more than in previous films, you have to explore and ask the question – why would people do such things? before you can leave with your life. Brooder who is clearly the Ethan of the film’s sidelined here, allowed to travel with the men, however his actions are more directly questioned and fought against. Whilst Ethan has to the power to walk all over those who ride with him for a most of the film. It’s his presence and knowledge of the Comanche that make him both valuable and a danger to those who are searching for the Edwards daughters after the raid.
Leaving Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) to question his thinking and eventually persuade him to rescue and not kill Debbie (Natalie Wood) who he believes to be tainted, no longer a white person after her time with the Comanche. Brooder is more generalised racist who has let his hatred for Native American’s seep into that for other non-white nationalities that see him become a loose cannon with the men. His gentlemanly guise is a thin veil for something that fine clothes and manners cannot hide. Whilst Ethan (John Wayne) wears is it plain-sight in his speech towards even his distant family. Martin who he rescued as a child, who had since been adopted, is seen as a mistake in his eyes, he’s no kin of his. It takes the course of the film for him to change his view.
So what’s my view on Bone Tomahawk now? It’s still a film that leaves you taken aback, the images stay with you, the ideas are now even stronger, I’ll probably sleep better having got that first viewing under my belt. It’s a very rich film that gently plays out until you’re hit with the horror of the other that America is still dealing with today in terrorist attacks and the attempts to prevent Mexican’s and other South American’s crossing the border. It’s a very prevalent film that speaks of a nations fears that won’t go away anytime soon.