Talladega, Onondaga, Wononscopomuc, A-ho! We Americans love our Native American names, the ones strewn across our great nation like eagle feathers, on highways, bridges, and lakes. What would America be without summer camps called Kikakee and Tamakwa? Blond girls with Native American ancestry are proud of the high cheekbones a Lakota Sioux great-grandmother blesses the lineage with.
“Hostiles” takes place during the time our European forefathers were still wresting native land via flintlocks and Colt six-guns, as well as weathering arrow barrages, tomahawkings, scalpings, and homestead arson. That’s the framework around this wild Western: a well-told tale of hard-won tolerance and compassion between Native Americans and settlers.
Warriors Escorting Warriors
It’s 1892. Military prisons are stuffed with native families. Cavalry officer Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) is about to retire but is forced to escort Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family, from New Mexico, back to his birthplace in Montana. Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer.
Blocker’s fought natives for decades, hates them with a vengeance. New Mexico to Montana is a heck of a trek, and he despises the thought of it. He’d prefer a court-martial, but his orders come directly from the president, meaning that if Blocker disobeys, no pension.
After a brief soul-search, Blocker resigns himself and musters a small troop of soldiers he’s fought with before and trusts. He certainly doesn’t trust the Cheyenne family he’s now responsible for.
Settlers Had It Tough
On the way, they come across a Comanche-ravaged homestead, with a lone frontierswoman, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), swaying between catatonia and hysteria amid the cinders: three dead children and a kidney-shot dead husband.
The long journey to Montana is interspersed with more hostile Comanche, hostile frontiersmen, abduction, assault, mutinous musings, despair, suicide, hangings, and various other forms of frontier mayhem.
But as time passes, Capt. Blocker and Chief Yellow Hawk, sharing the common cause of survival and doing battle together, eventually reach that place that men who’ve been through a war together reach—rendering them, if not exactly brothers, then well-respected brothers-in-arms. And a stoic attraction between stoic frontierswoman and stoic Army captain stoically burgeons.
Racism in 1892
America’s had Caucasian–Native American racism since day one. So here’s a 2018 neo-Western about 1892, depicting combinations and permutations of the circumstances of who’s a racist, and why, and how it’s possible to be racism-ridden and still fundamentally be a decent person.
Among them is a master sergeant (Rory Cochrane) riddled with PTSD and regret from too much killing of natives (he refers to it as “The Melancholia”) and staggering under the weight of his karmic load.
Then there’s Cpl. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors). This black man is Capt. Blocker’s best friend. That’s the film’s message in a nutshell: Blocker loves this African man and hates that Native American man, until he walks a hundred miles in that native man’s moccasins and then discovers he likes him too.
A further permutation: While Blocker’s a racist, he’s got a moral compass. Halfway through “Hostiles,” Blocker’s crew is further burdened with yet another escortee—a sociopathic war criminal and prisoner charged with savaging a Native American woman (Ben Foster playing his standard, oily, guilt-tripping psycho).
So it becomes: See the difference between the moral racist and the amoral one? Human existence is complicated, and “Hostiles” does a fine job of holding up a mirror for everyone to assess the current state of their own hostility.
How’s Your Hostility?
The action is compelling, and the John Fordian Western landscapes are compelling. Rosamund Pike’s anguished utterances are novel, disturbing, and utterly compelling, and Bale’s veritable come-to-life classic tintype photo of an emotionally battened, gaunt-faced, haunted-eyed, walrus-mustachioed Civil War soldier is thoroughly compelling.
The two shortcomings are, first, that while Adam Beach and Wes Studi are the go-to actors for this kind of Native American role, there’s not much for them to do, and it makes one wistful to see Q’orianka Kilcher, who’s carried her own movies, basically having to lie around the fire and say, “I am Elk Woman.”
Secondly, the Comanches are designated as pure evil. That’s a bit facile. The Comanches worshiped Great Spirit and Earth Mother, the same as the rest of their tribal cousins; we needed to see what settler actions sparked their ire.
But all in all, the message is 1) tolerance, and 2) compassion. Life’s too short for hatred, and then death. Death by cancer. In fact, hatred causes cancer. Don’t be hostile.
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Christian Bale, Rory Cochrane, Stephen Lang, Ben Foster, Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher
Running Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Rated: R (for frontier-type gun, knife, arrow violence, and language)
Release Date: Jan. 26
Rated 3.5 stars out of 5