HOSTILES. US, 2017. Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Timothee Chalamet, Adam Beach, Xavier Horsechief, Q'orianka Kilcher, Tanaya all, Scott Wilson, Peter Mullan, Ben Foster, Paul Anderson. Directed by Scott Cooper. 134 minutes. Rated M (Strong violence).
Not exactly a welcoming title. However, we recall that in the language of the American West, the Native Americans, the Indians, were referred to as “Hostiles”. The presumption was that the Indians were hostile and that the explorers, the settlers, the military, where the American “good guys”, conquering and/or settling the Indians.
This was standard in the films of the early 20th century. However, by 1950, it was evident that there was some kind of change in perspective, some kind of sympathy for the Indians, looking at them more in their humanity, becoming more conscious of their being dispossessed, of their being confined, of their uprisings, of the need for treaties and settlement.
Hostiles takes its audience back to the end of the 19th century. There is a gentle introduction to the story with a family and their log cabin, the father out doing his work, the mother at home with two daughters, teaching them, the nature of adverbs, and a baby sleeping. Suddenly there is a marauding horde, shooting, scalping, the mother trying to protect her children, hiding in the rocks. So, the film has a prologue of gentleness and the intrusion of violence, the fostering of hatred.
Then there is a transition to a fort, the military, Christian Bale as Joe Blocker, a long-serving captain with a strong reputation amongst his men, rigid in his hostile attitude towards the Indians who has seen massacre his friends and the Indians whom he has killed. A presidential order has come to the fort that a veteran chief and his immediate family are to be returned to their home territory in Montana and the Joe Blocker is to lead the expedition. He initially refuses but finally decides to obey the orders, picking out a squad of soldiers on whom he can rely (played by a number of character actors and a young man, Timothee Chalamet as he was becoming a star).
The film, then, is a narrative of the journey, its realism has the small group make their way on horse, some of the Indians walking, through rugged terrain, through beautiful terrain, mountains, desert colours, red crags, the green of trees and grass, to Fort Winslow in Colorado and glimpses of settlement, houses and progress, and then into the vastness of Montana, to bring the Indians home, the Chief in his final illness.
On the one hand, there are violent episodes, the marauders attacking the band with some vicious shooting. There is a prisoner convicted of murder (Ben Foster in another unsympathetic role) who has to be transported along with the group, full of hatred, attempting an escape and causing some mayhem.
On the other hand, the principle of being with those we do not like or do not understand and gradually learning who they really are, learning to respect, means that the journey is also symbolic, a journey of transformation. This is especially fostered in the mother of the opening sequence becomes part of the travelling group, venting her in a rage in shooting into the corpse of a dead Indian, get gently bonding with the women.
Rosamund Pike elicits great sympathy as the bereaved mother becoming sympathetic friend. Christian Bale is the stalwart and serious soldier, self-contained after many years on the frontier, who gradually learns respect.
Audiences anticipating a slam-bang action Western will be dissatisfied. This is a Western which reflects the hardships of the period, the prejudices, the violent consequences – but a Western which also asks its audience for further reflection on reconciliation.
Released 6th December
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.