Return of the White Savior Western: ‘Hostiles’

Hostiles - poster

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (1963)

What would you say is worse, something that’s just outright bad from start to finish or something that clearly has the potential to be good ending up bad? One of approaches the former with low expectations based on knowledge of what made the product in question; this makes it hard to be disappointed when said product maintains the low standards of its predecessors. The latter is often something borne out of a greatness that one would love to see repeated. When it fails to meet that greatness, it can make you reevaluate the perceived greatness of what came before.

Of the two options, Hostiles is definitely the latter.

Mind you, it didn’t disappoint me because of what came before (I haven’t seen Scott Cooper’s critically-acclaimed Crazy Heart or his crime thriller Out of the Furnace, but I have seen his mediocre Whitey Bulger bio-pic Black Mass), but rather the fact that there are so many things in it to make a great film, yet it settles for being a run-of-the-numbers retread.

The year is 1892. Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has become something of a legend in the effective – and often brutal – way he clears lands of the native tribes that inhabit them. Having become fluent in languages and customs of several tribes, the openly racist officer takes pride in how well he carries out his assignments. But that very effectiveness proves paradoxical when he arrives in New Mexico. It’s there that he assigned to escort the notorious Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family (Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Xavier Horsechief, Tanaya Beatty) to their former tribal land in Montana, where a cancer-ridden Yellow Hawk may die in peace.

As Blocker and his men reluctantly make their way northward with their assigned guests, they encounter a hostile band of Comanche scalpers, a woman (Rosamund Pike) widowed by said scalpers, illegal fur traders, and even angry fellow cavalrymen. As Yellow Hawk tries to hold on to life, Blocker begins to question who has really done more damage to this land and the people who inhabit it.

I’ll be honest, folks: I can deal with the fact this story involving Indigenous Peoples, one Buffalo Soldier, and a traumatized woman is told entirely from a White man’s point-of-view – that’s to be expected. I could even deal with the fact that it was expeditious, so as to fit into a roughly two-hour running time. I could even deal with the fact that yet another quintessential American tale was being told with two Brits in the lead (Bale and Pike). But its “We are the World”-by-way-of-White-savior bullshit was too much.

Look, there’s a good movie to be found inside of Hostiles – a great one, in fact. The early scenes depicting Blocker’s ugly anti-tribal racism are both realistic and palpable. When he and his entourage encounter the traumatized Rosalie Quaid (Pike) after her family has been slaughtered by Comanches, both her reactions – including cradling her baby and breaking down at the sight of Yellow Hawk and family – and Blocker’s sensitivity to her reactions create an excellent emotional foundation for the film. All of this hints at a wonderfully complex and nuanced look at the very racist history most Americans would rather ignore.

Hostiles - still by Lorey Sebastian
It’s Bale least-shitty American accent and second-silliest facial hair. Photo by Lorey Sebastian – © Yellow Hawk, Inc.

But director/screenwriter Scott Cooper isn’t interested in telling that tale. Instead, he has Blocker go from trying to goad Yellow Hawk into a knife-fight to treating him as a respected peer before the halfway point; Quaid goes from suicidal and outwardly resentful of Yellow Hawk’s family to accepting a gift from them and washing dishes alongside them in record time; and – in one of the film’s most horrendous plot turns – the women of the expedition go from being kidnapped and raped by snarling White fur trappers (yes, ALL the women in the expedition: including Quaid, Yellow Hawk’s wife, and their daughter-in-law) to Quaid wanting to hop in bed with Blocker the very next night.

There isn’t a single ounce of natural character progression in this entire film; everyone winds up changed simply because the plot says so. Racist? Ride with some Cheyenne and you’ll get over it. Raped? Give it a few hours and you’ll be ready to bone a stranger in no time. Shook from your first kill? Just forget about it. Who knew all the world’s problems and prejudices were as simple to solve as walking off a stubbed toe?

I don’t mind the fact that Cooper appears to be telling his story (based on that of writer Donald E. Stewart) from a contemporary progressive perspective. What I take issue with is the way he reduces complex characters to straw men and women, and tries to inject the characters – not the story, the characters – with a level of political correctness that would have been anachronistic for the era. With the exception of one or two uses of the term “red skin,” all Indigenous are referred to as “natives”. And in the very racist cavalry, no one seems to mind the one Black soldier in the expedition. Quite the contrary, Blocker holds him in the highest regard. Why? Just because.

So, after all the horrible things I’ve mentioned, why don’t I give this film my lowest rating? Because the things that are good are really good. Although most of the script is a trainwreck, Cooper will eventually stumble upon the aforementioned early scenes. What’s more, everyone in the cast creates and excellent performance. Y’all know I’m not the biggest fan of Bale – neither as an actor nor as a human being – but for the sake of artistic critique, I must admit that he does maybe his best work here. That doesn’t excuse anything about him (or any of his past shitty performances), but credit where due. And when Rosamund Pike isn’t treating the slaughter of her family and her own rape like brushing dirt off her shoulder, she actually does bring a good sense of heartbreak to the character of Mrs. Pike. Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Xavier Horsechief, and Tanaya Beatty all do their best as Yellow Hawk and family. It’s too bad they’re all just reduced to the “noble savages” stereotype.

And the film is beautifully shot by Masanobu Takayanagi. Rather than take the production to Canada, Takayanagi and Cooper make great use of the beautiful New Mexico and Phoenix landscapes. Every horizon is captured without looking like a postcard, and every character is given an interesting angle that still allows you to explore the frame. Add in some good editing by Tom Cross and the two-hour-plus runtime is at least pleasant to look at.

Hostiles presents itself as an old John Wayne-John Ford wagon trail western seen through contemporary ideals. Given how unapologetically racist and sexist those films were, such a perspective would be a welcome relief. Unfortunately, Scott Cooper’s idea of “contemporary ideals” is to reduce characters into the descriptions one would find on a job application; to say nothing of the fact that his film is still unintentionally racist and sexist. The technical side of this film is exemplary in how to do film-making right; the script is exemplary of someone who failed Character Development 101.

GRADE: D

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5 thoughts on “Return of the White Savior Western: ‘Hostiles’

  1. Wow a closeted pseudo-SJW, who never spent a day in reality, did not get the idea that real life is often short, violent. and brutish, What a relief that has never happened before. Go on a ride LE ride-along, or volunteer in an ER some full moon weekend in a major metropolitan area and get a clue.

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  2. Cinnamatograghy out standing story almost as convoluted as real life.but what can be done in that timeline. Native wise it would be a longer story I wonder if the industry is ready for that type of service

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  3. I am Kanienkehaka myself more commonly known as Mohawk and am a struggling screenwriter, live on the west coast but am of an east coast tribal nation and I couldn’t get through an hour of this movie. The white savior trope needs to die but it won’t as long as whites are a majority. Maybe in 25 years when they’re not that can change. As for the inaccuracies….holy fuck.

    For starters the Comanches surrendered in 1874-75 with Quanah Parker. There wouldn’t have been any hostiles left in 1892. Quanah was the last chief. Their buffalo substance was what allowed them to have food while their raids were able to roll back the Texas border by 100 miles during the Civil War. In 1892 there was not that many Comanches or buffalo left. Also, the Cheyenne and Comanches fought together in the Battle Of Adobe Walls so the notion that Comanches and Cheyennes would have been fighting each other with the Cheyenne on the side of the white man is laughable.

    It’s like the asshole that wrote this movie slept during history class. The Cheyennes pretty much surrendered six months after Little Bighorn. Wounded Knee was considered one of the last major Indigenous uprisings save for a few scattered instances of Yaquis and other Southwestern tribes taking pot shots at Mormons occasionally. But come on!

    On a lighter note a movie about Quanah Parker you know, an actual Native historical figure is being made right now. I am currently writing a screenplay about Joseph Brant from my nation. As for Wes Studi I don’t know why he agreed to any of this. He was awesome as Geronimo in 1993.

    Also last important detail: You were expecting the buffalo soldier to be hated by his white peers. For starters buffalo soldiers would have had more than one Negro and even then, they were just as genocidal against the Apaches, Lakotas, Comanches, Kiowas and other tribes in the west. For example, I had a Lakota friend tell me a little known fact. The blacks who were at Wounded Knee as well actually were cutting out Indigenous women’s uterus and held them up as war trophies. They also did this with unborn babies ripped from their stomachs.

    The blacks were known to many tribes from Comanches to Lakotas as words that in their language translated to Black White Man. Their skin was different but their actions were the same. I do not have a historical source for this in writing as this is oral tradition but oral tradition can be accurate too as was the claim that Custer actually fathered a Cheyenne child and had a Cheyenne wife before he died.

    So even if whites might not have viewed a black soldier as an equal he was better in the eyes of fellow soldiers than a Native as at least the blacks were Christian and English speaking unlike their African ancestors.

    They also don’t translate what was being said between Christian Bale and Wes Studi. I speak Kanienkeha but not Cheyenne. Granted, I watched it online and I was not going to check it out but a Seminole friend who saw it made me curious I wanted to see how long I could last

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