Jun 26, 2018
by Diane McCurdy, Film and Book Reviews
Every country at the beginnings of its nationalistic stirrings creates a myth and a hero that embodies concepts of shared identity, of ethnic cohesiveness, of common values.
The Italians have Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Spanish, El Cid, the French , The Song of Roland. As Americans, we have The Western and our hero is the cowboy.
Ever since the art of film making developed we have had versions of the Western genre from Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy through John Wayne to the myriad Stetson wearers who have filled in along the way and still exist today. The latest incarnation of the hero figure is Christian Bale in the film, Hostiles. He is a captain in the U. S. Army and is given an assignment he initially refuses until he is threatened with a court martial. His task is to take a terminally ill Indian chief and his family from New Mexico to his ancestral homeland in Montana so that he may die in peace. At their first stop they pick up Rosamund Pike whose husband and three children have been slaughtered by Comanches. Rosamund is near mad with grief. Bale, a life long Indian fighter and hater, begrudgingly unchains his captives in order for them to help resist the marauders. White fur traders rape the women. This is a road movie and the road is brutal. Adventurous encounters abound as they tread through some very photogenic but treacherous territory.
The “revisionist” aspect comes into play early on. In the olden days there were clear cut divisions between good and evil. In this, there is moral ambiguity. Not all Native Americans are bad, not all white men are good and vice-versa. As the journey progresses and mutual respect develops between Bale and his fellow travelers, he is able to regain part of his humanity by recognizing their right to dignity.
Bale (Batman) is an actor adept at portraying world-weariness. Pike (Gone Girl) does well as a strong, resilient heroine different from the damsel in distress of another era.
The irony is that these two actors playing quintessentially American characters are both England-born. The indigenous actors are not fleshed out very well which is unfortunate because I suspect they had some interesting tales to tell.
People are kind and empathetic when they are allowed to interact and demonstrate those qualities. Hostiles is epical in that it uses the well-worn tropes and conventions of the American Western and with a more truthful and accurate lens elevates that genre to a higher standard, a loftier stance.
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