Late in the night as one day turned into another, I finally recovered from the male self-ordained “Karen” from the Baptists next door, just another person living in Pendroy, a collapsed town, and commuting to Valier to be important. It's a very small group that may not survive the pandemic. The instrument of my redemption was a movie, a 2017 Western to be exact, that was written in 1980 and revived just now, though in the end it was neither cheerful nor redemptive. Everyone kills everyone, except a man, woman, and Cheyenne child, who leave on an early locomotive train for “civilization.”
https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/01/hostiles-scott-cooper-review/550862/ This review says: “Hostiles” is a classic revisionist western, stripping away the traditional notions of good guys and bad guys on the American frontier and instead digging into the poisonous effect of decades of colonial warfare against the continent’s indigenous peoples.” This rather old review is fair enough, but as limited as he claims the movie to be. What you bring to such a production is generally what you take away from it.
In my eighty years alive, I’ve spent seventy-five of them watching Westerns, and decades more living them out. In this time the “hostiles” have gone from being Comancheros, to frontier trappers, to outlaws, to men who have gone mad, to those who will impose themselves on everyone else for profit, like the Conrad Confederate “raiders” who founded this town and the county seat. The procession never ends.
It’s just that people forget and let down their guard or feel that circumstances press them into doing what they wouldn’t otherwise. Drugs and politics haven’t changed much. People here remember that their seed population was Belgian and think the elite but effete Poirot is their model. Only lately have they remembered that King Leopold was the cruelest and greediest embodiment of a king of a country forced together by war. Leopold made his riches in rubber and enforced his orders with amputations of the limbs of his black African slaves.
The triad of final survivors in this movie includes a strong woman -- which is characteristic of three movies often presented together and created by a little cluster of similar thinkers. The three are “Hostiles”, “Missing”, and “The Homesman.” One might call them “Early Midwest Noir” since they are all about being isolated and enduring in a harsh place. In “Hostiles” there are some other stereotypes: the black man who represents a moral center, the faithful buddy who can go no farther, and the French kid who feels everything and therefore will not make it. That’s among the whites. The usual old wise Indian chief is Wes Studi so he’s never stupid or silly. Who knew Studi would ever be this old? He seemed eternal.
Most of the impetus for this cluster seems to come from Scott Cooper, the re-writer and director, as well as Donald E. Stewart (deceased), who also wrote “Missing,” the Western with the coyote on the table — or was it a Catholic altar? I’m hoping that by following out these names I can escape the silo of foreign murder mysteries where Netflix and others have confined me. I can handle subtitles and I’m learning a bit of French and Spanish, but I don’t like the scenery. I love the long prairie horizons and, a little less, the red rock country. “Hostiles” is all sky, mountains in the distance, and snapping red campfires. I know those things. It’s a beautiful film.
There is no stereotypical “padre” in this film, no talk about religion but a bit about sort of semi-therapeutic “heart” spirit. A liberal journalist in the beginning is a bit of an anachronism along with his friendship with these Cavalry generals -- who seem quite enlightened but aren’t really in the story anyway. The comparisons and maybe infiltration by today’s cops who fancy themselves as Cavalry are related, IMHO, to the continuing theme of wanting to return “home” whether indigenous or some nebulous place back east. Characters are wanting to return to someplace that has utterly changed, often because of the incoming new people. “Broken Trail” is part of this group of films. Maybe another Wes Studi film, “Badland.”
A person could get a little bitter about this. After all, I came back here not expecting that the drug dealers and sexual stalkers of the city would be here. It’s not that they weren’t here in the Sixties so much as that I was young and dumb then, and had found a protector. Now I see the coyote on the altar.
Does that make a real difference? What if it’s an improvement? What if a constantly mowed green lawn makes people behave? And gets the century-old sewer system of the town to work. And keeps people off the drug trade?
I called up “Westerns” on Netflix and got a weird assortment of films of every kind, some loved — like “Longmire” — and some ridiculous. The best Westerns these days seem to be Australian, like “Mystery Road” with real indigenous actors and a strong female sheriff. The landscape in Australia is as primeval and moving as in the American West for the same reasons. The film buffs who care about that appear to be a minority these days, which is a shame because such a setting takes away a lot of clutter that hides the real bones of character. The trouble with most of the bad movies is that they’re by people from the East who grew up on Woody Allen.
But there’s another dynamic. The Western series we all loved in the Fifties were mostly what I call “stand down” stories, about how violence is a last resort and not the only answer. Matt Dillon, Mr. Faver, the Wagon Train leader, Paladin, were all strong men who looked for solutions besides just killing people. But recent television, mostly not even Westerns, has promoted killing as a solution, violence as the exciting way to go. Partly a reaction to the deranged war in Vietnam, partly drugs, partly the collapse of the Industrial Revolution which has resorted to arms wars in Eurasia. Maybe part of it is the Atomic Bomb always being a threat. And frank admiration of international criminals. We may have reached our limit with the militarization of what used to be our guardian police. Now they are hostile even to our children as they play, not unlikely to shoot them over toy guns.