It’s awards season and I’ve started early this year, not that I think that Hostiles (2017) is gunning for any awards, just the timing of the release in cinema’s. Nonetheless it’s a Western which means only one thing, I’m there. Booking the tickets even with a few warm reviews I decided I had to see this for myself. Based on the manuscripts of Donald E Stewart about an army captain who reluctantly takes on a mission that changes his politics. Now this is how Soldier Blue (1970) could have gone, but decided to be more literal. I also found a few links to The Searchers (1956) which I’m always looking to explore through other films.
After years of internal wars between the White settlers, who had been shaking up and re-organising the country into a shape that more resembled their own destiny, we forget about the soldiers and people who were caught up in the Indian Wars that have left the Native Americans greatly diminished and broken. Hostiles attempts to address some of those issues in this Revisionist Western. Beginning by reverting to classic form – a Comanche raid on a family who are massacred, it’s straight to the point, gruesome and sets the tone for what is to come. Leaving wife and mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) alone to bury her family, potentially altering her outlook on life too. She could have easily allowed racist tendencies to creep in and understandably too. It’s too later for Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) who is an embittered racist who has seen more than his fair share of bloodshed whilst in uniform. Easily seen as an extension of Ethan Edwards if he stayed in uniform. Yet his racism comes from another place, that is never really explored, leaving us to question how did he becomes this monster who could hate Native American’s that boils over when he discovers his family massacred, raped and captured also by Comanche’s. Blocker is given one last mission under threat of court-martial for refusing, to escort a now elderly Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their home land of Montana. Part of me thinks this is a test set by his commanding officer Col. Abraham Briggs (Stephen Lang) wants to see him suffer, to test his politics before the decorated officer retires. A big “Screw you” you could say.
The last time I saw Studi was as another historic Native American Geronimo in the 1993 film, here much older he gets slightly less screen time than his white colleagues who dominate. Showing there is still away go before they are given a fair representation in the genre. However they were portrayed with compassion unlike the Comanche who’re reduced to an obstacle to overcome – somethings never change. I’m not too surprised either, it’s a long ingrained part of the genre that is hard to shake. To achieve that they will have to be a Native American in the directors chair, with an un-compromised voice. That said The Cheyenne’s that are depicted with sensitivity, we can see they’re spirit has been broken but theirs hearts haven’t, which is the extent of the Cheyenne’s suffering is really explored.
The focus as always comes from the white man- Blocker whose our Ethan Edwards filled with racial intolerance for the Cheyenne that he has to escort across the open country. It’s his journey that we follow which has an interesting effect on him. Much like Edwards, he knows his foe very well, having learned to speak Cheyenne, he knows the enemy intimately, maybe too well. With the pomp of leaving his fort one last time he has his foe chained up, there’s no trust for the elderly warrior who puts up with this indignity. He wont rise to the bait, a decent man knows when he’s been defeated. This last throughout the discovering of the burnt out homestead where we find grief stricken Rosalie Quaid, everyone in the party can understand her pain. Pike delivers a heartfelt performance, you can really feel her pain, I wondered if she would cross into racial hate, making Yellow Hawks journey home even harder. Would her grief match the hate that of Blocker’s? Playing a vital part in Blocker’s transformation by the films close.
We start out of the fort with a small Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) stricken with depression, Corp. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors) who has been proud to serve with Blocker Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons) fresh out of West point ready to prove his superiors he’s worth his rank and French recruit Pvt. Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet) who has no real experience in the army. The small group meet resistance early on in the form of the Comanche who are the first of many obstacles on their long journey that has an effect on the number of men in uniform. Taking on Rosalie Quaid, could easily be seen as a burden to them. It’s the aftermath of these events that start to open up Blocker’s view of the world, starting to question his thinking. Finally confronted when he takes on army prisoner Corp. Tommy Thomas (not a very original name) (Paul Anderson) under the care of Sgt. Paul Malloy (Ryan Bingham).
Thomas is the equal of Blocker, yet he has used his racial hatred to kill a Native family whilst not under orders. Purely for them being there. A cold-blooded killer who shows no remorse for his crime, would Blocker have done the same out of uniform or has his uniform given him licence to kill and get away with it. The security position and rank have been enough, to go as far as Thomas would be a point of no return for the captain, or is this the next part of his life outside of the protection of the uniform. The Indian Wars and Frontier nearly closed he would be a monster in civilised society, an Ethan Edwards in fine clothes.
There’s a lot of ground covered both literally (and spectacularly on camera) and thematically, from racism to man first killing to forgiveness. It goes along way to get us to Montana and it’s not an easy ride with a lot to think about. Filmed over the last year it can now be easily seen as a response to America today, as it becomes increasingly alone in its world view. The development of a wall on the Southern border with Mexico. The political divide is stronger than ever with a President who you either trust implicitly or question his every tweet. Blocker is leaving one life behind for another, does he want to bring his past life to his future. Hostiles attempts to deal with a very contentious issue and does a good job – on the white man’s side. Whilst the Native American has to just accept his place in the film and history on the chin. I wish the Cheyenne had more time to talk, to explore their position, instead they are just lead and protected by the army that’s trying now to do right by them. It reminded me lastly of Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the depiction of the Southern Cheyenne joining those in the North, which is more apologetic than Hostiles that draws it out of the characters slowly, not so much the director. I can only conclude that Revisionist Westerns will only be apologising with white actors in the lead role rather than the Native’s who depiction and capacity in the film is still being determined through the winners history.
It’s been a few years since I caught Nevada Smith (1966), then a few months ago we it was on as background, I had completely forgotten what the Western was actually about. Meaning it was time for a revisit. I’m doing quite a few in recent months, parts because I want to understand the films more, and there’s little to watch, this was a little of both really. I originally found the film to be about a mixed race half white/Kia whose out for revenge for the death of his parents at the hands of gold thieves meeting people along the way as he tracks down the three men responsible for the deaths. Which essentially the film is.
What else is this take on the other in the Wild West? Again the other’s played by a popular White actor Steve McQueen who is able to play the naive young man (white, Kiowa or mixed race) and draw in the audience which it clearly does. However as time has proven the draw if money takes away a decent representation of the Native American on film. Usually employing them in films more as extra’s, if on-screen they are not their for more than a few seconds, or pushed to the background to allowing the box-office draws or foreign English speaking actors caked in make-up to the fore. Its not practiced today in Hollywood (one lesson they have learned from except for Johnny Depp).
Nevada Smith begins being reminiscent of The Searchers (1956) (yes I know I keep returning to that film) but only briefly, where I wonder about the direction of the rest of the film. Instead of the white man being attacked the mixed race are attacked, leaving the often forgotten Native to fend for himself. Here we follow him after returning to the family home, complete with inset shot of the massacre in low light. Where we were once kept away believing the image would be too much for the audience to take in. We are still not given much information, even ten years later. We we are given a bleak description of how his parents were killed later on. Ford doesn’t like to linger with the images, the horrors of the Comanche are too much to accept. When it’s a white man inflicting the violence we can take more.
Moving away from that striking connection to the older film which it doesn’t try to replicate, instead it moves on making its own narrative. Instead of burying himself in hate for the killers of his family. Can this illiterate young man who can’t eve defend himself be a match for this killers who have not just skill but the edge of life experience on their side, whilst Smith has to learn all of this from scratch or die in the process.
In that process he is ready and pretty much willing to ignore his mixed heritage, adopting or assuming the ways of the White gunslinger. The preferred image of the Western. I don’t thin it would be the same film if he went around the film wearing his Native dress, the film would not have the same appeal, and would probably not one McQueen’s better films. It would lean more towards Burt Lancaster‘s role in Apache (1954) which is laughable (as straight as he may play the part) today.
Smith learns to draw and fire a gun, does his mixed heritage work to his advantage. However he also has to learn to read in order to pass himself as a white man, live in a white mans world that demands to be civilised not living as a savage Indian that may not understand, held back by these differences. If Smith accepted his Kiowa this would be a very different film, becoming in the eyes of a white audience a savage, played by a white man, he could be a more dangerous man to watch and fear also.
Moving away from the Native American themes (that dominate my own thinking at the moment) I can see a decent revenge film with the added texture. Looking at it today, it’s innocent but that doesn’t take away from the journey that Smith goes on to track his families killers, one by one he finds them and kills them as justice allows him. The deaths slowly reach Tom Fitch (Karl Malden) who begins to fear him. It takes the rest of the film for us to catch up with him, building him up to a dangerous man. Along the way Smith allows himself to be humiliated by others if it allows him to get to the next man. He does however use his skills and Kiowa knowledge to stay ahead of everyone (most of the time), right up to the end. helped with the christian intervention of Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) who introduces him to the bible. Allowing him to leave his Kiowa heritage for the white christian that was apparently waiting to come out. Or is it a combination of the two spiritual sides coming out and together, giving him a perspective on life that leads to the final showdown where violence is no substitute for forgiveness.
My thinking on the film has greatly improved or even deepened you might say, not the strongest of films exploring the Native American. The standard white cast and lead who we are supposed to accept as the other (without as much make as Lancaster). It was Hollywood of its day so what are we to know. We do have a decent revenge film which is entertaining which what you want at the end of the day, which I had the first time round, now its a richer experience.
Coming into this film I was bringing a lot of expectation. After reading about Jeremiah Johnson (1972) in a few books I thought I had a pretty good idea of how this film would look, feel and be. I think I set my expectations a little too high, my idea of what the film is, is completely different. Also because I haven’t been able to find it until now (neither on TV or DVD) I saw it as a more sought-after film, one that if you don’t see it you’re missing something special, which is in a way I suppose. The less accessible a film is the more you look forward to seeing it. Like friends that rarely see, you make the most of the time you have together. Jeremiah Johnson and I are not quite on those terms yet.
Another reason I wanted to see this film is part of my understanding of the Native American Western, how the sub-genre developed. I was lead to believe that Robert Redford‘s titular character would become a revered other of the Crow nation in the mountains, shedding his white civilisation past to become to the other which we have seen so many times feared in the genre. I kept thinking more about Man in the Wilderness (1971) which saw Richard Harris‘s character comes closer to reaching that transformation. His was however not out of choice, more survival. Learning the way of the mountain Natives who we see as almost god-like, they have done nothing to be feared. The built-in cliché that they are dangerous savages is not really mentioned. Both films are however set before the Civil War when most Westerns take place or there-after. Western society is still forming, still moving westward and yet to truly tackle the “Indian Problem” that we see in so many other films.
So I’ve already established my initial thoughts, the early comparison to probably a better film, what’s it all about. Staying with the idea it’s about the white man becoming the other, the one whose feared, which I believe is a reading that is nonsense to an extent. He never truly crosses over from one culture to another like Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who rejects all that is white about him. Johnson is one of the early mountain-men as we meet a few others. The type whose found in other westerns whose respected for his knowledge of the natives, much older than those settlers making their way West. People who come with dangerous experience, if you cross them they could leave you on your own to defend yourself. Some become scouts for the Army as they built new forts. These men cannot function in society, but enable it to grow outside the boundaries we already find it. Much like the gunfighter, the danger they bring with them leaves them unable to stay in one place for too long. Out in the mountains they are able to live an acceptable life-style, one with nature you could say.
I’m still trying to pin down what this film is about, maybe an escape from what was going on in America at the time. It was the beginning of a new age of directorial freedom which I admire, enjoying the work of those who are now respected names. But that would be going of on a tangent. In westerns we rarely focus on the mountain man, we see riders traveling through, hiding out or fighting Native American’s who have a clear advantage over the white men. Here is a chance to understand the mountain man, what drives him. We first meet Johnson as a soldier returning to civilian life in a 19th century Catamaran that delivers him to the outskirts of civilisation, he’s on the cusp of the unknown. Feeling his doesn’t below down with the frontiersman and settler he leaves them all behind. Now here’s where my expectations start to get dashed. Thinking that this film was going to be mostly absent of dialogue, I found it more of a 50/50 split really, which I still have to accept after what I had previously read. Johnson is trying to catch fish, all with his bare hands, grabbing the fish in the water. Not having any tools, a rare moment of comedy in this otherwise dramatic Western. Its here we meet for the first time Paints His Shirt Red (Joaquín Martínez) whose the man that Johnson wants to be, to be able to live in the mountain, surrounded by prizes from his many hunts in the mountains.
Things become more complicated when he comes across a homesteader (Allyn Ann McLerie) and her son (Josh Albee) who he later adopts and renames Caleb. A silent child who was more than likely trumatised by the death of his father. Leaving his mother mentally unstable, left to wander the mountains. A victim left alive from the Natives who are seen off-screen to be. They still victims of the cliche, or are they just defending themselves. This is quite problematic for me as the 1970’s is a decade of revisionism of the genre with films such as Little Big Man (1970), the Man Called Horse films that shows them in a fresh light. There’s still a savagery about these people, mostly the Crow who are seen by other mountain men such as Bear Claw (Will Geer) and Del Gue (Stefan Gierasch) who both admire and fear those who have lived there for centuries. Of course fighting with other Nations. It is the invasion of the white man in the mountain that is causing the conflict.
I cannot ignore the two mountain men Bear Claw and Del Gue who both help form the legend that becomes Jeremiah Johnson over the course of the film. Bear Claw is an almost God-like figure who has lived in the mountains for all his adult life. He assumes the role of the teacher to Johnson teaching all he needs to know to survive. Where as Del Gue is living the dream of the mountain man, he respects and fears the Natives. First meeting him bald, not wanting to be scalped – a common form of torture carried out by Native American’s, all part of the cliche that has been built up over the time. We next meet him with a full head of hair, and some of the best lines of the film, comparing hair to God’s greatest sculptures.
“I ain’t never seen ’em, but my common sense tells me the Andes is foothills, and the Alps is for children to climb! Keep good care of your hair! These here is God’s finest scupturings! And there ain’t no laws for the brave ones! And there ain’t no asylums for the crazy ones! And there ain’t no churches, except for this right here! And there ain’t no priests excepting the birds. By God, I are a mountain man, and I’ll live ’til an arrow or a bullet finds me. And then I’ll leave my bones on this great map of the magnificent…”
He sums up what it means to be a mountain man, a free-spirit, the closest a white-man who wants to live the life of a Native American, to be with nature. These are men who want to live in the rawness of nature, rejecting civilsation for all that is primal, a part from a gun and a knife or two. It’s not an easy life as Johnson discovers, recreating the massacre scene from The Searchers (1956) that we play out in our minds. The genre has grown up to all these harsher images. He becomes a far more dangerous Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) who kills his enemy with little thought, but plenty of skill. When tired he shockingly sleeps among his victims. Its all or nothing.
I come away from the film still conflicted after the image of the film I built up in my mind has become something else – the actual film. Is is pro-Native American or not is my real question. It’s not even revisionist really. It’s another aspect of the genre that is explored in more detail, the life of the mountain man that serve little purpose in the arc of the western as whole, we hardly see them until now.
It’s not everyday I see a film where an image that just doesn’t seem to shift, which means just one thing, inspiration has struck once more. I am usually inspired by more well-known films, which is not a rule just coincidence. Taking place in the mystical Monument Valley, with the robbery of Army rifles a group of soldiers and prisoners go on a mission to retrieve them. Sadly the landscape is not so well filmed as John Ford had repeatedly captured it. At times you never know you are there, having only the skyline to remind you. Rio Conchos (1964) is a not just a mission but a journey of self discovery for one lonely man Maj, James Lassiter (Richard Boone) who has been filled with hatred by the Apaches that massacred his family years before.
After army capture he has a chance to get out along with another prisoner Juan Luis Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosa) who was destined for the noose is given another chance to change things. They leave alongside a captain and sergeant. Hoping to catch up with the Confederate colonel that has not conceded defeat after the end of the civil war, going on to sell artillery to the Apaches, a dangerous move that no one wants to really allow.
With hints of The Searchers (1956) Ethan Edwards who has to terms with another family massacre, is repeated here with at first more effect. Yet as the film progresses a different resolution is made, as he meets an Apache girl who would easily commit more murders. Also a visit to another home forces him to see what he thankfully was saved from, leaving only a baby alive.
It’s not very clear that who we are looking for are in fact Confederates until we meet them in them in a surreal camp where stands a mansion house still under construction, which makes the job of the set builders very easy. The idea of the whites world intruding in such a grand form is a sight to see. Whilst at the same time violates this sacred ground if we remove ourselves from the film for a moment or two. There is also intent to progress in an undeveloped part of the world on an aggressive scale. The structure looks very out of place in such an environment that will never really be touched by man. It’s an invasion with intent to make routes like no other. Also an image of the past that the confederates are not willing to give up easy. The big house, away from the plantation that was worked by the slaves. Here they wish to set up a new America with no interference, hoping to control the natives by outfitting them with artillery they control.
A brutal end that brings the film to an abrupt end with no real confusion, full of action that is warranted yet not reacted to in terms of dialogue, no one rides off, they are all left to deal with the consequences of the explosions. Will the Confederates admit defeat, will the captain and sergeant return to the fort. Has Lassister really come to terms with the loss of his family. There was already a rich film before we reached the inclusion of renegade soldiers why did they carry on adding extra weight to the film? It does add another layer and create a what if scenario, seeing them not give into defeat as seen in Hangmans Knot (1952) but slowly admit defeat, whilst later on we see in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) a rampage of murder is began for personal reasons. The South didn’t give up easy, no loser does that unless they know they are truly wrong.