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.
I’ve been meaning to watch Soldier Blue (1970) for sometime, know it came out the same year and shared some themes with Little Big Man which took more of the satirical angle of the genre and the politics of the day. I come away glad to have seen the film at least, I was considering a double film review to see how they both work together, but in reality they don’t unless you take both the massacres that are depicted; working as analogies for the Vietnam War which I’ve been learning about thanks to the BBC4 documentary series, which could be summed up easily in a few sentences when you look back at the conflict that really shouldn’t have taken place. Becoming an embarrassment both at home and internationally.
The function of the Western is to make sense and explore America’s consciousness, by looking back at its past to understand the present, how far they have come and also to celebrate, which at times can be problematic as we move further forward from the original events. Our view of history changes as we develop and change out thinking, new evidence comes to light, public opinion changes too. Blue made at a time when the American public wanted a complete withdrawal, the 1968 Nixon promised just that during his election campaign, which he eventually delivered on. The Western here is functioning on less than subtle level here, and at times very literal too, which is never a good thing for any creative endeavour. I could see the politics dripping off its liberal sleeve.
Beginning as a routine delivery of gold with a small troop of cavalry soldiers, with the addition of newly freed Cheyenne captive, Kathy Maribel ‘Cresta’ Lee (Candice Bergen) dressed in white women’s clothes ready to rejoin civilization. Sitting there in silence whilst the men are ogling her, hoping to make a successful advance, not the best way to return to white society. It’s not long before they’re ambushed by the Cheyenne who massacre them. We are seeing the power of the enemy first, before the U.S army has a chance to flex its might muscles at the finale. Leaving only two survivors, Cresta and Pvt. Honus Gent (Peter Strauss), both running from the action below. We learn how very different these two people are, the approach they take to the aftermath and their eventual leaving of the site. The ex-captive has no real concern to raid the dead soldiers in order to survive, taking all the water she can get…nothing really wrong there. Whereas Gent sees the act as desecrating a war site and the dead, placing his values above survival whilst still being respectful. Both want to survive but have very different perspectives.
Gender roles here are reversed here, usually the male is foul-mouthed – which is partly why the film has an 18 rating in the UK (although that could be reduced to a 15). The more Christian soldier’s shocked at the language that she comes out with. It’s refreshing that an actress is given such colourful lines, leaving Gent in the female role, even though his uniform suggests in the male role of protector, a soldiers trained to kill and serve his country but is giving way to a woman who understand the landscape and culture they are traveling through. Cresta is able to navigate her without relying on a river that would leave them vulnerable, discern which nations they interact with, she’s the scout who takes command.
Later on we encounter a goods wagon owned by Isaac Q. Cumber (Donald Pleasence) who we learn is really an arms trader using his wagon to conceal his real purpose in the West, to make a fast buck out of the conflict that is waiting us at the end of the film. However I notice a massive plot hole here which I will turn to later. Cresta is more aware of what is going on and ultimately sides with her Cheyenne family who have not harmed her physically, psychologically we can see where her loyalties lie – with the native, or the savage in the eyes of white civilization. I found Pleasence’s more enjoyable compared to Will Penny (1968), he’s not playing the mad preacher, more the capitalist out to make money from whoever he can find. I just wish we saw more of him, saying that his character did serve a good purpose in showing up the political divide between the Gent and Cresta.
The relationship that develops between the two I feel was a little manufactured to please the studio who made the film. However it allows a conversion to take place within him showed how far Gent travels emotionally and politically at the films close. You could say Cresta made a conscientious objector out of him, protesting about the conflict he’s supposed to be favour of by the colour of his uniform. The relationship may not be all that redundant after all.
Now for the plot hole which are a few, the years supposed to be 1864, during which time most if not all Indian wars were paused to focus on the Civil War between the North and the Southern states. However Gent mentions that he lost his father the previous year at Little Big Horn to the Sioux – which was in 1876, during the height of the Indian wars. Whilst the Washita Massacre took place in 1868, 3 years after the close of the Civil war. Another plot hole revolving around the gold that was stolen with the suggestion that it would be used to buy rifles, which itself make sense however when we meet Cheyenne chief Spotted Wolf (Jorge Rivero) of the he does not want to go to war. They do have rifles, but no mention of a recent purchase. All we learn is that the Cheyenne like all nations have an understanding of trade and how to operate within the White man economy whilst still being mostly free of the capitalist world itself.
The massacre itself is a thinly (emphasis in thinly) veiled metaphor for Vietnam, I’m sitting there thinking, yeah I get it. It doesn’t have the subtlety of Little Big Man of the same event that was more desensitised and was actually led by Custer who led both campaigns. The special effects here are poor, with dummy heads clearly being used and left in shot, it’s all for shock value which becomes more entertaining when that’s nor the point and lets down the film when we know it’s all leading upto this one-sided battle. Even if the cavalry rode over the U.S. flag before killing every man woman and child their weapons could reach, the fact that the Cheyenne didn’t want to fight, it’s all pretty much lost in the mess. It wasn’t really enough to laugh as I was just disappointed really let down after all this build up, the journey Cresta and Gent have been on, wondering if they would make it back to civilisation at all, not how I want to feel about a Western.
Another Western that I’ve been looking out for over the years, with the wait now finally over I have mixed feelings of deflation. Comedian Rich Hall began his BBC4 documentary on the film depiction on Native Americans by starting with the assassination of Osama Bin-Laden -, soldiers uttering the word Geronimo. A word that was originally linked to the name of the Apache warrior who held out and fought until he’s forced to surrender to the U.S. army. How many other names have been so misappropriated? A name of a countries former enemy has become a term of celebration and liberation. None have the same sound to them as Geronimo as it rolls off the tongue out of all the prominent Native American figures. It’s a practice that I try to avoid, aiming to keep his name in historical context, not to use in celebration.
The 1993 film Geronimo (1993) was one of two released that year about the Apache warrior, one made a Native American produced TV movie, very different in tone, celebrating the life and times of the figure, one that I feel I should watch again to compare. And the Hollywood Western that bills the lead actor, fourth on the list below Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. A symptom of how Hollywood make and market their films. Placing the more prominent names above others who have a larger part in the film. Also indicating the position of Native American actors in the film industry, at the bottom. The only positive you can take away from this billing is that the role went to Wes Studi, a Native American (Cherokee) and not someone in brown face, that’s some progress.
Made during the early 1990’s when there was a boom in the genre, released in between Dances With Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) and Wyatt Earp (1994), the same year as the larger than life, sweeping epic – Tombstone (1993). Easily categorized as a revisionist Western, attempting to rewrite the genres pasts wrongs to tell a more honest account of history. So how did they get on? I’m reminded of Broken Arrow (1950) when James Stewart narrated Tom Jefford’s experience with the Apache, we even met Geronimo in one scene when all the tribes of the nation met for a council meeting, his own histories picked up in a Chuck Connors film – Geronimo (1962) which I might check out of curiosity. This 1990’s take on the warriors narrated by baby-faced Matt Damon as a fresh out of West point officer Lt. Britton Davis, leaving me thinking how much of Lt Dunbar has influenced him, his moments of reflection and modern thinking on a 19th century issue that’s now become part of America’s history and less talked about politics. Britton us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he waits to meet with his commanding officer Lt. Charles Gatewood (Jason Patric) heading off to join the stately and much admired Brigadier General George Crook (Gene Hackman) who was given the task of rounding up the Apache and sticking them on the reservation.
Now with all Native American revisionism its going to be more graphic – think Little Big Man and Soldier Blue (both 1970) et al, it’s brutal and attempting to take their side for again. Yet it still comes from the perspective of a white soldier – Davis who is reflecting over this period in history. There is however more screen time given to Wes Studi and rightly so really allowing us the best Hollywood can do depict the final days of freedom for the Apache. As revisionist the film tries to be, it takes a massive cue from John Ford, depicting the film entirely in Monument Valley, trying to be both a Cavalry film and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) which moved around the Navajo country, having now taken on this mythic form and space which allows filmmakers to tell the story of the West in this landscape almost exclusively at times. I found this distracting at times, thinking about Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at times, not seeing for it wants to be.
With more screen-time given to Studi we’re allowed to understand his point of view, he’s not just a pain in the backside for the Army and the White House, He’s has a credible point of view. First meeting him at his initial surrender, brought the charge of the two Lieutenant’s who see this as a big moment in both their careers and history. For Geronimo it’s the end of his peoples way of life and loss of freedom, he’s not taken this decision lightly. It’s a film that wants to be taken seriously, giving time to both fact and action during the films run. Time for the peace talks that see the Apache accepting they’ve been worn down and needing to talk. Before things get messy after an Apache’s killed for a ghost dance (disturbing the peace) which triggers another war between them and the white eyes.
The action scenes are rather mixed, bloody at times, filled with dust which makes it hard at times to see what’s going on. OK we’re in the desert but its supposed to be discernible to the viewer. Suggesting that it was a bloody time for both sides, more so the Natives who are fighting for respect and honor at this pivotal time.
Turning to look at the other characters times taken to develop the two lieutenant’s and even the aging scout Al Sieber (Duvall) who has suffered 17 arrows and gunshots and still standing, he’s learned to respect his enemy whilst growing tired in his role. A nice character for Duvall to play, having been a presence in the genre ever since he got “shot to pieces” by the Duke in True Grit (1969) he gives the film extra strength by him just being there. I felt as much as those in uniform were given more time to grow, we got less time with Chato (Steve Reevis) a once feared warrior, now a loyal scout to the cavalry, outside of his obvious skill and knowledge he is only seen as a traitor to his people. At least he’s not being played by Charles Bronson in Chato’s Land (1972).
Summing up this film it’s an attempt to tell two sides to the same events, whilst naturally being slightly more biased to the Army, made by White men, it’s only able to go so far. We do have a more fleshed out depiction of the Apache which i can’t complain about and with subtitles which gives allows more depth, only speaking English when faced with White Eyes. I noticed also a bit of slopping editing, splicing in an elder to Crooks final treaty talk, it looked really out of place, shoe-horned in there. I can’t complain too much, its an early 90’s Western that attempts to rewrite events, yet still holding back in places.