By COLBY DENTON
“Hostiles,” the new Western film starring Christian Bale tells a tale of kinship, historical stereotypes and life as a soldier on the Western frontier through a perfectly portrayed lineup of …
“Hostiles,” the new Western film starring Christian Bale tells a tale of kinship, historical stereotypes and life as a soldier on the Western frontier through a perfectly portrayed lineup of actors.
The setting is New Mexico in 1892. Bale plays a U.S. Cavalry captain named Joseph “Joe” Blocker, who despises Native Americans, as the U.S. Army has been fighting with them in small skirmishes for years.
The film begins with a very realistic representation of an Indian attack. Comanches overrun a frontier farmhouse, killing several residents. While not to demonize Natives, it truly shows just how bloodthirsty some tribes were, or had to be, in such a harsh environment as the rapidly expanding West.
We are introduced to Blocker and his small group of cavalrymen as they toy with an Indian they’ve just captured that they take back to their fort. This first scene shows something that most historical movies up to this point have shied away from; it shows a mix of races abusing Native Americans, not just white men. One of Blocker’s men is black, another is French, one is a hardened veteran of the army and one is a new addition from West Point. I found it refreshing to see this film portray Native American abuse from all sides, which is how it was. While the abuse is reprehensible regardless, it wasn’t simply white, U.S. cavalrymen who were the villains; it was everyone.
Talk about a good Western. This film is tense throughout as the subtle quiet of the frontier allows for a false sense of security that only lasts until a gunshot rings out from off screen. While Blocker is shown to be very cold-hearted at first, his justifications for his hatred center on the large amount of fellow soldiers and friends he has lost to the Indians’ hands. He’s a phenomenal soldier, but has become hardened by years filled with death and war.
The conflict arises when he is tasked to escort a dying Chief Yellow Hawk, a former Cheyenne war chief, who Blocker knows to have killed some of his friends, to his homeland in Montana. He is initially resilient at first, refusing to take Yellow Hawk because of their obvious disdain for one another, but the threat of a court martial as well as refusal of pension seals the deal for him. The party is made up of Blocker and his men, Yellow Hawk and his family and eventually a woman whose family was killed by Comanche.
Along the route, the group faces hostile weather, Comanche raiding parties and their own general mistrust of one another. Blocker is not the sort to allow his captives a respite, but slowly grows to respect the Natives for their honor and ferocity.
“Hostiles,” while being a fictional film, is actually very realistic. Nothing was sugarcoated. One of the biggest points of this film is the sheer weight of guilt that the soldiers carry for their actions against the Natives and from war in general. Events such as Wounded Knee are referenced numerous times. Post-traumatic stress disorder is something that wasn’t understood at the time, and is highlighted as a common ailment for most soldiers. Hardly any soldier understands the full ramifications of PTSD, and many take to drinking, or sadly, suicide. This resonates strongly today, as most see PTSD as a horrible result of war that deserves sympathy; in 1892, soldiers either found a way to deal with it, or simply ended it all. The film really painted a bleak picture for life as a soldier during those times before mental health was even slightly understood.
Another major point of the film was acceptance. Despite their differences, Yellow Hawk and Blocker find mutual ground and are able to forgive one another for their past transgressions as they develop mutual respect for each other. Both begin to trust each other, and it’s heartwarming to see such bitter enemies grow to rely on the other.
I found this film to be much better than I expected. Frankly, it was one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. You will cry, you will cheer and you will move to the edge of your seat waiting for an inevitable shot to ring out and someone drop dead. This is definitely a well-directed movie. I’m typically not a fan of Westerns, but this is now one of my favorites. Interestingly, the National Congress of American Indians praised the film for its accurate portrayal of Native lifestyles, which only serves to bolster its authenticity. While this film isn’t for children due to violence and language, it’s a good, all-around, yet sadly underrated movie that most will love. Five out of five stars.
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