"'Deserves' Got Nothing to Do With It"
Donald E. Stewart died in 1999 after a career as a screenwriter (you may remember his scripts for The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, A Clear and Present Danger, and Missing). Now, this is curious: he left a "manuscript" for a project for what was to be Hostiles in the 1980's and Scott Cooper (who directed Black Mass, Crazy Heart, and Out of the Furnace) took up the mantle of the film, seeing it through to completion last year.
Hostiles is in theaters now and the promotion of it, the ads on television of it, has led to a lot of questions on my part—it's a Western (a rarity these days) but what type of "Western" is it going to be? Is it going to be myth or truth? Is it going be clean or messy? Tragedy or triumph? Is it Nation-building or genocide? Is it going to hearken back to Westerns of the past or plow new ground? What sort of animal is this "Western" going to be?
It's opening quote by D.H.Lawrence doesn't help much, except in retrospect: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted."
We're told it's 1892 in New Mexico and in a valley of scrub squats a naked farmhouse. Riders approach. Wesley Quaid (Scott Shepherd) is working when he sees the five horses appear over a ridge, his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is teaching adverbs to her daughters ("how where and when"), with the baby asleep in the next room, when Wesley busts in and tells her to run to the woods like they'd planned and don't look back. But, she can't. Wesley shoots, but almost immediately he is shot full of arrows and scalped. Running with the baby in her arms, she is horrified that her daughters are picked off with rifle-fire, but she still runs and hides. The Comanche raiders can't find her, but they set fire to the house. The baby is dead in her arms from a bullet that didn't reach her.
Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) returns to Fort Berringer, New Mexico, after capturing an Apache family that has escaped. He and Master Sergeant Tommy Metz (Rory Cochrane) share a bottle and reminisce about their long campaigns fighting the South and then the Plains Indians; Metz has been relieved of his guns due to "melancholia" ("There's no such thing" says Blocker) and confesses he's going to retire, but the Army, as it always does, has other plans.
Berringer's commander, Biggs, (Stephen Lang) has orders—"a cause celehbray"—from President Harrison: one of the fort's prisoners, a Cheyenne Chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), is dying of the cancer and Biggs wants Blocker—and no one else—to escort him and his family back to "The Valley of the Bear" in Montana so he can die in his homeland. Blocker is adamantly opposed to the idea and refuses, to the point of insubordination. As a conveniently expository reporter for Harper's Weekly informs us, Blocker has probably scalped more men than Sitting Bull "himself," and while Blocker acknowledges that it is not his place to disagree, he will not carry out the orders and would just as soon cut the throats of every member of the family. Biggs tells him to sleep on it; he leaves in the morning.
After a night straight out of a Terrence Malick movie where Blocker walks out to the prairie with a thunderstorm in the distance and screams his protests about it, he gears up and takes a squad with him: Metz (of course); buffalo soldier Corp. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors); a rookie out of West Point, Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons); and a Pvt. Phillipe Dejardin (Timothee Chalamet), who everybody calls "Frenchie." Once out of sight of the fort, Blocker stops the party saying "the fuckin' parade's over," takes out two Bowie knives and orders Yellow Hawk to dismount, offering him one of the knives. The Chief scrutinizes the Captain "I do not fear death" he says in Cheyenne, and Blocker orders the two Cheyenne males to be chained up for the rest of journey to Montana.They don't get too far until they find the Quaid farm, still smoking, the dead unburied, and Mrs. Quaid sitting in the burned out husk of her home, still holding her dead infant, with her daughters tucked neatly into bed. She demands that they not be disturbed, and Blocker, with a career of dealing with tragedies like this, places the emphasis on comfort rather than pushing the realities of the tragedy on someone still in shock. Even the offer of burial of the loved ones is dropped...immediately...when the woman, in her grief, demands she do the job herself. She digs and digs why the soldiers stand by, finally pawing in the dirt (much like Blocker raked the ground in the "Malick segment") until assistance is gently offered and she acquiesces, allowing for a service to be performed just after the sun has dropped below sight.
This hasn't gone unnoticed by Yellow Hawk and his party. The old chief goes to Blocker and requests that he and his son be unchained to better assist in any defense against the Comanche renegades. He is entirely practical and sees danger for all parties "They are snake people," he tells Blocker in Cheyenne. "They do not discriminate." The words weigh on the captain but he will not relent. The chief may make sense, but not enough to soften his caution. For him, it comes down to deeds, not words. It is only after an encounter with the Comanche that leaves Woodson wounded and Dejardin dead (and three of the Comanche dead, one by Yellow Hawk running over him with his horse and another by his son, Black Hawk (Adam Beach) strangling him with the very chains that bind him does he relent. The Captain can be practical, too.
He's also different than most Western heroes. You know the type. Most of them are fierce subscribers to the idea of "Manifest Destiny," (as in "there's a wilderness to be tamed and, by God, I'm the one to do it"*). The wilderness is one thing, but the indigenous peoples living on it before them is quite another. Most of the time, we just get the settlers' view of things, but about 50 years after movies were created (and "the Western" along with it, scarce decades after the real thing happened), we started to get a thread of the viewpoint of the First Peoples' point-of-view which can be summed up as "there goes the neighborhood" or more contemporaneously "who let all these foreigners in here?" The making of the nation was pretty much boiled down to a governmental experiment combined with a continental race war. But, it really wasn't until John Ford made The Searchers in 1955 that we got to see the racial aspects of the Western, and it was write large when its top-billed star—John Wayne—played the character of Ethan Edwards, a complete and total (and unrepentant) racist.**Your initial impression of Captain Joseph Blocker leads you to think he runs along the same lines—and director Cooper nudges the cine-philes in that direction by opening with a similar family massacre and a shot from the interior of the house that frames Nature in a doorway in the same manner that The Searchers did in its initial images. But, Blocker does not see things as merely black or white, but more of a shade of mordant gray. He's not a strict racist, per se (and his tearful leave-taking of Corporal Woodson is meant to dispel the notion), he just hates Indians—at least his experience as a soldier has taught him that that should be his first line of defense. He's seen too much death, and, in turn, caused too much of it to think that any business with Natives is not a good business. And it comes to him as naturally as putting on his uniform.***
And, as if to prove the point, Cooper takes it a step further; at a Colorado outpost along the way (where Woodson can be doctored) and Mrs. Quaid might take her leave, Blocker and his troop are given another task—escort Sgt. Charles Willis (Ben Foster) to Montana to be hanged for murder. He's given a couple more guards, and, despite the offer of sanctuary, Mrs. Quaid opts to continue to ride with the troop to Montana. And it is this portion where most of the reviews of Hostiles has been a might unfriendly.
Some of the accusations against Hostiles comes to its length at just this point—some folks think you don't need the Willis character, but I see it as a bit of reinforcement to shore up what might be a too-easy character arc for Blocker if it did not exist. Willis provides him a chance to look in a dark mirror, and see what might transpire of a man who goes down a wrong path. Willis—who once served with Blocker, and was at Wounded Knee with him—has taken his military experience and gone off the rails, murdering civilians, crimes for which he has been convicted and is on his way to be punished for. It may pad the movie a bit, but it does allow the alternative side to be heard from; Willis and Blocker are not the same man, but their paths are marked by similar times and occurrences, the accumulation of which have created the men they've become. Blocker could let those instances influence his choices, let the past influence the future, holding the names of the men killed under his command as a shield...or an excuse. His prisoner is the bad angel tempting him from the path he appears to be taking—made manifest (in all senses of the term) with his own destiny hanging in the outcome.As you might be able to guess, I love Westerns. It's one of the two genres (besides science-fiction) that puts a mirror to our current age, speaking to us from the past (or the future), from the "when" about the present, about us and where we are today—about the "why" and the "how". Somehow, putting us in another frame of time puts us in another frame of mind, as well. The locale is different, but we can still recognize the human condition while it teaches us from a different perspective than the familiar, if we choose to recognize it.
Like I said, I love Westerns, and I like them best when they're challenging. And Hostiles is one of the most challenging of the breed.
* See also: "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."
** If you could get past the fact that the character was played by traditional Western hero, John Wayne (which a lot of people couldn't). Some people see him as a hero without noticing that the one GOOD thing he does goes entirely AGAINST his previous intentions and inclinations...and that the movie basically shuns the character and bars him from civilization.
*** Christian Bale has a funny little character "tic" when his character is thinking—he rubs his scalp at the line of his hair...as if he's valuing it and saying good-bye to it for the last time if he thinks wrong.