Director: Scott Cooper
Writer: Scott Cooper
Cinematographer: Masanobu Takayanagi
Producer: Scott Cooper, Ken Kao, John Lesher
by Jon Cvack
George W. Bush had passed Native American Heritage Day while in office, placing the civil holiday on the day after Thanksgiving, with its first official recognition on November 24, 2017. It’s a noble gesture, and while widely supported by the Native American community, certain detractors have criticized the day for being one commonly associated with gluttony and excess; along with being tacked onto a day that most already had off.
Like many, I first gained an understanding of the Native American genocide in Howard Zinn's The People’s History of the United States. Years later, while on vacation with my parents at the Grand Canyon, I picked up Jake Page’s In the Hands of the Great Spirit which documented the 20,000 year history of the American Indian, prefaced by the author saying he wanted to avoid the politics. Serving as a much extended version of Zinn’s chapter, it portrayed the Native Americans who once Columbus landed, were subjugated and systematically murdered by the white invaders; second to the genocide was the perpetual breaking of promises by the American government - granting land under binding agreement and then taking it away, with the amount granted and guaranteed constantly dwindling as the population and cultures faded exponentially.
In one of the most historic Oscar speeches of all time, Marlon Brando had a Native American woman accept the award on his behalf, denouncing portrayals of Native Americans in movies and drawing awareness to the cause. While there were efforts made to revise the previously “Savage Indian” - often serving as the barbaric villain in most Westerns - the 90s were dominated with historical revisionism, with films like Dances with Wolves (‘92) and Pocahontas (‘95) focused on the white men who would enter these communities and save the Natives who couldn’t save themselves; similar to films such as A Time to Kill (‘96) and Mississippi Burning (‘88) that placed white men as the saviors for southern African Americans; implying they couldn’t save themselves.
In the year 2017, as cinema has made massive strides in providing proper and better representation for women and most minority groups, I couldn’t believe that another film could possibly come out that would express white guilt over America’s treatment of Native Americans, while essentially leaving Native American culture and characters completely out of the narrative and discussion. Hostiles is very much an apologetic film that mistakenly reflects upon the “I” rather than the victim. In this case, we get to hear how bad white people are and how guilty they feel and how bad they are while completely ignoring any insight or focus on the true victims. Once again, the Native Americans characters serve as nothing more than ornaments, offering the same generic anecdotes and metaphors that we’ve seen in throughout the last thirty years; never caring to develop them into full characters or to allow them to guide the story.
The story opens with a family in their lone country home attacked by Comanches who kill and slice the scalp from the husband while the wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) taking the children into the woods for safety. At Fort Berringer, we meet Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) who’s ordered by his Commanding Officer to escort an Apache Chief and his family (including Golden Globe nominees and Saulteaux to the reservation (the latter played by Adam Beach who has maybe a dozen lines in the nearly two hour movie). Blocker despises all Native Americans, having seen what some had done to his men, refusing to take the order until his pension is threatened to be revoked.
He acquiesces and picks a crew of soldiers including Private "Frenchie" DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet; who compared to this year’s Call Me By Your Name (2017) is grossly underutilized); fresh West Point grad the Lieutenant Kidder (Jesse Plemons; who’s looking to be the next generation’s Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his old friend and alcoholic Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane; as one of the film’s best and most interesting characters). They head out with the Native Americans, eventually coming across Rosalie, whose children have died since hiding out. Rosalie now harbors violent bigotry against any and all Native Americans.
From here we know the film is going, as both Blocker and Rosalie eventually come around to the Apache family and as the Apache characters offer stereotypical allegories and broken english anecdotes about animals and spirits which demonstrate that they’re not all that bad. From there, for the majority of the two hour and fifteen minute running time, we follow the caravan around, moving from gorgeous New Mexico vistas to campfires to arguments and conflicts and monologues, all shot in close ups, with the sitting/lying down/standing, with the camera never moving, then repeating, until eventually a pit stop at another Fort puts them in control of an even more overt bigot Sergeant Charles Willis (Ben Foster) who wishes nothing more than to slaughter all Natives; who has more lines and interaction in his brief twenty or so minutes of screen time - spouting nonstop racist vitriol - than most of the other Native American characters combined.
I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of the film was. It frames itself as an apology for white supremacy, yet refuses to develop its Native American characters as anything more than the generic stereotype we’ve seen in westerns for the last thirty years. Even Adam Beach is relegated to a meaningless role, to the point where I doubted that a man of his stature could possibly have agreed to take such a minor and offensive bit part; making me wonder if he had more screen time and was simply cut to offer more of its two hour plus runtime to the white characters explaining how guilty they felt.
In a time when African Americans and Women are finally getting the change they have deserved, I was surprised that this movie escaped liberal twitter. A film that offered the same self-centered monologues to those groups should have received the wrath of social media warriors. It just goes to show how much further the plight of Native Americans need to go; where even the far left seems to forget about them unless coupled with environmental issues. Worse, this is the second film this year to make the same mistake; following Taylor Sheridan's Wind River (2017).
Fifty to a hundred million Native Americans were killed because of white man’s arrival and it’s a truth that continues to be swept under the rug and forgotten by even the most ardent liberals. With opefully this film demonstrates the problem and soon things get corrected. It is long past due.
BELOW: Nearly fifty years later, and Hollywood has still done little to correct the problem
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