On Wednesday January 10th, the National Congress of American Indians hosted a screening of Hostiles, a movie about the world of American soldiers, white settlers, American Indians and the world that surrounded them all in 1892.
On the movie’s IMDb page, Hostiles is described as follows: “In 1892, a legendary Army captain reluctantly agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.”
The movie stars Wes Studi as the Cheyenne Chief Yellowhawk, Christian Bale as an American soldier and officer Capt. Joseph J. Blocker and Rosamund Pike as Rosalie Quaid. The movie also features an array of well-known actors such as Adam Beach, who portrays Yellowhawk’s son, Black Hawk, Q’orianka Kilcher as Elk Woman and Tanaya Beatty as Living Woman. Ben Foster portrays an American soldier held for murder, Sgt. Charles Wills.
In countless movie reviews, many of you have undoubtedly heard the term “sitting on the edge of my seat,” to describe a movie that might be cutting edge, causing tension, or even outrage. In this movie Hostiles, I was literally watching this movie, sitting on the edge of my seat, the entire time.
Hostiles, directed by Scott Cooper, did not waste a second getting to the heart of the story. There is a disastrous clash between Comanche warriors and settlers, bullets flying at nearly every turn of the journey and interactions between Christian Bale and Wes Studi’s characters that are brilliant and mesmerizing.
I felt outrage at the reality, laughed at the humanity and grieved for the brutal truth that existed in the world of 1892. I didn’t expect this from this movie as I went into it waiting for the same stale stereotypes often portrayed in westerns or civil war films … Soldiers hate Indians, Indians hate the soldiers. Settlers fear the Indians, everybody tries to kill each other, the end.
This movie does have a significant amount of people trying, (and oftentimes succeeding) to kill each other. But Scott Cooper as a director doesn’t stop at this level of engagement. He delves further into the hearts and minds of the relationships between people. You see humanity shared between people. Soldiers are suffering from the mental exhaustion of Post Traumatic Stress, they come to grips that they have killed and question whether it was right.
Hostiles dives in and takes you with it. You feel the pain of loss on all sides of the fence. You come to realize that everyone is fighting for survival. Everyone is fighting to preserve the sanctuary of family. Everyone is willing to die and kill for it.
The world of 1892 was a brutal place. I felt anger at the racism, I felt anger at the potential for white saviorism, I felt anger that so many soldiers dismissed Native people as savages. But none of the anger was at the film. The film did such an amazing job at presenting the reality of 1892, I felt the outrage to what actually did exist – in a very real way – at that period of history.
Wes Studi as Chief Yellowhawk delivers one of the finest performances I have seen by any actor in years. His moments of speaking in the actual Cheyenne language, (which were closely guided by actual language speakers to ensure the correct dialect, words, etc. were used) were as powerful as his moments of silence. Studi was not only a chief, but a man who loved his family, his people, his grandson. One of my favorite moments in Hostiles is when Chief Yellowhawk shares a smile with his grandson.
Christian Bale’s performance was a powerful and effective reminder that human beings exist under the guise of a soldier’s uniform. He suffers from extreme PTSD and unravels his humanity throughout the process of the film. You hate the actions of a troubled soldier and yet, perhaps you might see inside the mind of a troubled man who struggles to make things right.
The movie was so filled with a true life feel and a sense of reality, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a set of real archetypal tintype photos of Chief Yellowhawk and Capt. Joseph J. Blocker on some antique covered shelf today.
The are similarly impressive performances by Rosamund Pike, a woman who has suffered terrible tragedies, Adam Beach, who portrays Yellowhawk’s son, Black Hawk, Q’orianka Kilcher as Elk Woman and Tanaya Beatty as Living Woman.
The women are a powerful force in the film, and as a viewer, you grieve for their troubles. In as much as the world of 1892 was a horrendous world for soldiers and Native warriors, it was perhaps even more ominous and horrifying for women who fought for safety amidst a world of men who sought only to serve their own dominant interests.
Overall, the film is a gut punch of reality. I felt sick with this created reality of the brutal pre-1900’s world, rolled my eyes at the words of the clueless ‘Indian allies’ and felt anguish to the Native people that were imprisoned, forced to reservations or looked at by soldiers and settlers as subhuman savages.
I felt outrage at the reality. But appreciation for Scott Cooper’s unflinching willingness to tell a true story. Reality isn’t a pretty picture, but Hostiles by Scott Cooper is a truly beautiful film, both within the cinematography and the attention paid to every detail. I wholeheartedly recommend this film. Go see it.
Hostiles is in select theaters across the country now and in theaters everywhere January 19th.
Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) is a Native American journalist and film reviewer for Indian Country Today. You can follow him on Twitter at Follow @VinceSchilling