Dances with Apaches

Y ee-haw! Well, grits my vittles and varmint my hornswaggle, the annual Western is here. Can’t wait fer some quality rootin’, tootin’, shootin’, ‘splainin’, and some more shootin’. What’s that you say, young feller? The hero is an unrepentant racist? Oh, this is gonna take more ‘splainin’ than shootin’, isn’t it?

Four years after the end of the Civil War, Union General Phil Sheridan (supposedly) said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” This disgusting quote later morphed into, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” and became pretty much standard western U.S. policy in the post-war era. It’s fair to say that most Americans weren’t terribly comfortable with the idea of sharing the land with the folks who got there first. The result was often bloodshed and Hostiles begins with a Comanche slaughter of a frontier homestead family and then an unrelated counter scene of cavalrymen treating escaped Apaches as one might treat stray cattle (assuming that “one” is a big jerk, of course). The man responsible for the Apache raid? Veteran of many a slaughter, Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale).

It’s 1892 and President Harrison (no, the one who lasted more than 30 days) wants to play nice with Native Americans. Discovering Apache Chief (no, a non-animated one) Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer -which is really going around this movie season- the Prez has ordered the imprisoned Chief freedom and an escort back to his original home ground in Montana. Captain Blocker vehemently argues against said detail, but won’t risk his army pension for the right to refuse. Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is also a veteran of many slaughters, but from the other side. Super … a buddy road pic! Can’t wait.

It takes Booker about eight seconds to stop playing nice with his new companions, first offering resolution-by-knife-fight, then settling for manacled-on-horseback which I imagine is the 1890s version of the back of a police cruiser. You see where this is going, yes? Two long standing enemies have to overcome years of reinforced prejudice and learn to hate each other as people and not ideas. I have no doubt that when it was storyboarded, Hostiles saw itself as another Dances with Wolves. The plot gets complicated when the party picks up a stray in Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), the only survivor of the Comanche attack above.

In this very scene, Hostiles both gains and loses itself. The addition of Rosalie introduces a common enemy (The Comanche) and thus common ground; the mere addition of a woman, especially an injured one, allows the group to soften hard stances and take a look at real issues v. invented ones. However, also in this moment, the movie becomes distracted by its peripheral characters and loses focus. For the next next hour-plus of film, Hostiles became less Dances with Wolves and more, dare I say, Ten Little Indians. By the time we get to the ill-fitting resolution, the audience practically has to be reminded that Wes Studi is still in the film. “Oh, yeah. Didn’t he have a thing with Christian Bale? I remember something along those lines from Act I.”

There are many worse films than Hostiles. Similarly, there are many worse Presidents than Benjamin Harrison. At the end of the day, however, that won’t make the public remember you any better. I take from this that Hollywood’s annual attempt at a Western is a mixed bag of oats, and if you’re going explore this subject matter from a movie fan point of view, you’re much better off with either Dances with Wolves or Little Big Man.

Our Native history is not filled with grins
The American past is replete with sins
Yet we look back today
And ago seems OK
So long as you don’t name a team “Redskins”

Rated R, 134 Minutes
Director: Scott Cooper
Writer: Scott Cooper
Genre: Buddy trail pic
Type of being most likely to enjoy this film: “Why we can’t we all just get along?”
Type of being least likely to enjoy this film: The Alt-Right

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