The Homesman is a 2014 American period drama film set in the 1850s midwest produced and directed by Tommy Lee Jones and co-written with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver, based on the 1988 novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout. The film stars Jones and Hilary Swank and also features an ensemble cast that includes Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld, John Lithgow, and James Spader.
This severe American prairie Western -- a genre that is often declared “over” and “clichéd -- is mostly about women -- which is another characteristic also often declared missing -- is strangely modern because the underlying subject is beyond gender roles. At present many places on this planet are criss-crossed by migrating people, pushed partly by hope and partly by despair, across impossible landscapes. Such migrations can be so massive that they change the planet. On this continent, because the Euro diseases and empire builders had killed so many people, the climate was altered because the fires and fields of the autochthonous people were gone. It had happened earlier when the Black Plague decimated Europe. Today the climate has shifted because of too many people. Some are getting crowded off the face of the earth.
Such huge movements are not just hard on bodies, but also minds. The effects on men have been pretty much explored so far, but this film looks at American women displaced from their usual roles, dragged along in the service of their men, and tormented by the relentless production of babies. The frequent deaths of the babies was one of the forces that drove them into the safety of insanity. The were no meds, no vaccination, no awareness of the hormonal causes of postpartum depression which still -- even with meds -- can cause a woman to kill her babies. It’s curious that Tommy Lee Jones and Clint Eastwood, who made their spurs portraying violent loners, have now picked up the archetype of the wagon train and the cattle drive -- the scout, the guide, the protector of those on the move.
Whenever there is a necessity to risk life in travel, there will appear conveyors of one sort or another. For the homesteaders there were land locators and purveyors which is easy to understand, but also there was a need for Homesmen, who moved broken people back from whence they came, hopefully to families that had survived and would accept them. Or maybe to madhouses or churches. This movie is about a man and an unrelated woman who step up to the challenge without being corrupted. They are anti-coyotes. Counter-pirates.
Only in recent years have I been aware of people in similar modern jobs, returning stolen property like cars or children. (Children are often treated in the law as though they were simply property.) When some of Bob Scriver’s Blackfeet artifacts were stolen, the law shrugged but provided paperwork when he privately paid for a deputy sheriff to go bring them back from the big Indian art purveyors in the SW. Some things can’t just be packed up and sent in the mail.
In one point in his life, a person I know would accompany children who had to be legally returned to family members, maybe because of kidnapping or maybe the death of a caretaker or because they are illegal immigrants. Tribes sometimes legally demand that adopted tribal babies be returned. Sometimes the law is smiling and sometimes it’s getting in the way or even punishing. A person who fetches kids must be absolutely trustworthy and also deeply discrete. The pay may not amount to much, esp. if a government entity is paying. The best among such people are able to reassure the child, help sort things out. Contacts are needed. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t demand a college degree but requires a long experience of the "off-the-books" life.
In real life, just as in ordeal movies, such a task makes a person think and feel differently than the ordinary going-along person. Like law enforcement or emergency responders, they see things that are hidden from most citizens in order to keep the latter from worrying -- or wondering. The very protectiveness of the secrets begins ironically to feed into a system of neglect and abuse, obliviousness caused by lack of knowledge, protecting evil. How else could we tolerate so much suffering? Opportunistic criminal pressure can be better opposed by strategy than by gunslingers. Traditionally, ministers have been involved. Church structure has made pathways for the oppressed, like the Underground Railroad north for slaves.
I have no idea how this 1988 novel by Gordon Swarthout became a 2014 movie, but it wasn’t his first. That would be “Where the Boys Are,” which made Paula Prentiss a star in 1960. The week she went to Hollywood, I had been searching at the Salvation Army for clothes that could be the basis for her costumes in “Auntie Mame” at Eaglesmere Summer Theatre. She was most engaging in comedy, but her personal life was no beach frivolity. Her sister died in prison where she was serving a sentence for attempted murder. Plainly psychotic, she should not have been in a criminal facility.
That novel/movie was a far cry from the standard Fifties Westerns Swarthout had been writing, nor does “Bless the Beasts and the Children” sound typical though I’ve not seen the film nor read the book. (It’s about teens rescuing buffalo.) During much of his early life he was teaching at Michigan State University but the 1958 book/movie “They Came to Cordura” made enough money for him to move to Scottsdale. His wife also became a successful writer, but until the couple moved she taught second grade in East Lansing.
Heroic acts do not depend upon virtue. Rather it’s a matter of being in a certain place and time when idealism or necessity sweeps through as they did in the Sixties. Major historic social movements like the re-populating of the prairies, anti-slavery, or today's emergency of relieving the incredibly destructive burden on boys everywhere, all sweep up individuals and small groups that can slip under or around governments and corporations. But it’s also clear that the issues can pull movie directors, rock stars, and finally even millionaires into action. Millionaires are helpful, but it’s people who can embody ideas who are most effective.
The great American grassland is well-understood to once have been the floor of an immense but shallow sea. Today it is populated, but in 1850 it was a platform for dramatic and deadly tropes, intense and extended metaphors about what it means to be human in a place between cultures that normally buffer families or even curb renegade individuals. Amazingly, sometimes small alliances -- even virtual families -- form, that through focus and grit manage to bring out the best in humans. The final tone of this film is dancing drunk while sorrow slips into the river of time. We laugh. But we remember.