The film "The Revenant" debuted in late 2015 and, since it explored the same period of history as my epic ballad "Seekers of the Fleece" and the story of mountain man Hugh Glass, I am still answering questions about how I feel about the movie. I’m writing this because I saw Scott Cooper’s great new film “Hostiles” soon after it opened and I believe it is everything The Revenant should and could have been. Whereas my perspective of the Hugh Glass tale was grounded in John G. Neihardt’s perspective of forgiveness and redemption, I was disappointed that "The Revenant" focused purely on the revenge aspects of the tale. Unfortunately, this desire to underscore the aspect of revenge while also feeling the need to be politically correct, effected "The Revenant’s" scriptwriters treatment of indigenous people and they elected to use native people simply as theatrical devices to deepen the revenge aspect of the story.*(See my earlier blog review of "The Revenant" here on my blog page.)
Like "The Revenant", "Hostiles" does not shy from the intensely primal brutality of the 19th century American west; indeed, at times the raw brutality between Indians and non-Indians it is very difficult to watch. But that very malevolence is part of our 500 year history together and, as the film’s introductory quote by D. H. Lawrence states, violence has dramatically shaped us. That said, the characters "Hostiles" brings together on a dark, complex and dangerous journey are led through hatred and profound wounding to compassion, kindness, understanding, forgiveness, and redemption. Christian Bale always brings intensity to his roles, but in Hostiles his Captain Joseph Blocker’s intensity is contained deep within, subdued and smoldering, at times nearly bubbling over, but shielded in the jaded shell of an 18th century career military man. At times in this role Bale’s style seemed to pay homage to the great Robert Duvall. British actress Rosamund Pike is brilliant in her sensitive portrayal of Rosalie Quaid, a shell-shocked woman who has witnessed and survived the massacre of her entire family and is struggling to face that harsh reality while not wanting to continue living. The quiet arc of her character’s growth is something to behold. And the legendary Wes Studi has perhaps the best of his many great career roles as the dying Cheyenne Chief, Yellow Hawk. Studi adroitly accomplishes the very difficult task of co-anchoring a film with a character given practically no dialogue. His character didn’t need many words. Yellow Hawk’s very presence projected the inner strength of a dignified chief facing death while also being forced to cope with the fate of his cherished family being the prisoners-of war of a hated enemy; indeed, a former foe in mortal combat.
Whereas "The Revenant" succumbed to formula treatment of American Indians, "Hostiles" presents a very accurate account of what history tells us usually took place during an Indian raid on isolated non-Indian homesteaders. Yet "Hostiles" also creates a portrait of the loving connections of a typical indigenous family; indeed, "Hostiles" is ultimately all about family; Blocker’s military “family”, Rosalie Quaid’s lost family, and the return of Yellow Hawk and his family for him to die on sacred ground. As they make this remarkable trek together through darkness into light we get glimpses of the American family, past and present -especially the film’s final scene. Thank you Scott Cooper and everyone associated with this film.
*Disclaimer (I’ve known Cherokee actor Wes Studi since working on stage with him in the American Indian Theater Company production of "Black Elk Speaks" in Tulsa in 1984. Later, in 1988, Wes came to my rescue to create the role of the Blackfeet Warrior when the first indigenous actor I had hired to be in the full company musical debut production of my epic ballad "Seekers of the Fleece" pulled out the production a month before opening. Wes went from our debut full-company musical production of “Seekers” in Cody, Wyoming to Hollywood, where, in the landmark film "Dances With Wolves he soon began his meteoric rise to become the leading American Indian actor of the past several decades. Naturally, I go to see every movie in which Wes appears.)