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 Dances with Bale 

Christian Bale
Christian Bale
Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures
 134 Minutes
Directed byScott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike 

The last Western ever made by John Ford, the epitome of Western directors, was Cheyenne Autumn, a fact-based story of a group of Cheyenne leaving their reservation without approval from the U.S. government and heading back to their ancestral home in Wyoming. Ford viewed the movie as a tribute to the Indians and, probably, his way of making amends for the treatment of them in many of his earlier films (although he didn’t make all that many amends, since the major Indian roles were played by actors like Ricardo Montalban, Sal Mineo, and Gilbert Roland). The movie was a flop at the box office and, at best, a modest success with critics. Fast forward fifty years, however, and Cheyenne Autumn has now reappeared in the form of Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, a movie that filters Ford’s film through a half century of revisionist sensibilities and covers roughly the same ground geographically and thematically, on a fraction of Ford’s budget.


Like Cheyenne Autumn, Hostiles is the story of an epic journey by a group of Native Americans and U.S. soldiers, in this case from New Mexico to Montana. The year is 1892, and Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), only days from his scheduled retirement, is ordered to escort Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), who is dying of cancer, and his family to their tribal lands. Blocker and Yellow Hawk have a long history of bad blood between them, and, as the scene below indicates, Blocker hates Yellow Hawk for killing a number of his fellow soldiers. However, the order comes directly from President Benjamin Harrison, and Blocker obeys only under threat of court martial.


Shortly after Blocker’s small troop leaves the fort, they pick up Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a settler who is nearly catatonic after being the only survivor of a Comanche attack on her family. Yellow Hawk, who has been in shackles for the entire trip, asks Blocker to let his family loose so they can join forces in the event the Comanches, who hate Yellow Hawk’s Cheyennes as well as whites, attack again. Blocker refuses, but when the Comanches do attack, the still shackled Yellow Hawk helps Blocker’s small troop fend off the attack. This turn of events later leads to a thawing of feelings between the two men.


At about the midway point of the trip, Blocker stops at a fort in Colorado to drop off Rosalie and the casualties of the Comanche attack. The commander (Peter Mullan) tells Blocker that there won’t be a wagon train leaving the fort for months, so Rosalie continues on the journey. Blocker also picks up some reinforcements and an unwelcome addition to the party, Wills (Ben Foster), a soldier who is under arrest for murdering several Indians. Blocker has to make an extensive detour to transport Wills for trial. However, on the way, he and his soldiers encounter a number of other dangerous situations.


Unlike John Ford’s earlier Westerns and even Cheyenne Autumn, Hostiles makes it very clear from the opening scenes that Blocker is willing to engage in the same level of savagery as his enemy. The first two scenes in the movie are telling. In the first, Rosalie’s family is slaughtered by the renegade Comanches, while, in the second, Blocker supervises an extremely sadistic and brutal roundup of a handful of Apaches who are taken to the fort. However, from those first two scenes, it’s pretty clear where the movie is heading. It’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that Blocker mellows during the course of Hostiles and grows to respect Yellow Hawk as a fellow human being. As that happens, the film provides a ready contrast to Blocker in Wills, who is eager to point out that he and Blocker have done the exact same things, the only difference being that the policy of the U.S. government had shifted in the interim. Of course, since Wills is played by Ben Foster, who specializes in dangerous, off-kilter roles, it’s easy for the audience to see the difference between him and the more contemplative, world-weary Blocker.


Lots of movies feature characters that evolve over the course of the film, but Blocker’s development here seems more a matter of plot convenience than a genuine reaction to ongoing developments. As for Yellow Hawk and his family, the movie allots them relatively little screen time and most of that playing off Blocker and the other soldiers; as a result, they come across more as stereotyped stoic noble warriors than anything else. Most notably, although Yellow Hawk has as long a history of bloodshed as does Blocker, neither he nor any of his family members allude to it in any way.


The script of Hostiles went through a most unusual development process that doubtless affected its final form and may explain some of its shortcomings. The movie was based on an unpublished manuscript by Oscar winning screenwriter Donald E. Stewart (who died in 1999) and apparently was written sometime in the mid-1980’s. Director Scott Cooper adapted Stewart’s original work, and, of course, it’s impossible to tell how much of a contribution each writer made to the finished script. However, the film’s racial attitudes are more reflective of 1980’s liberalism than the more nuanced views of today. Similarly, the rather strange detour that Blocker takes, which serves to introduce the character of Wills, almost seems tacked on as well and serves to needlessly pad the movie’s running time. Hostiles is a film whose flaws would have been less evident at 90 minutes but which inexplicably gets stretched out by another 45 in a weak back half.


What keeps Hostiles from being an after school special with R-rated levels of violence is primarily the acting, and most specifically the chemistry between Christian Bale and Wes Studi. Both actors deliver restrained performances, but the underlying dignity of both of them is evident here. Studi in particular stands out in what is essentially an extremely cliched role. Beyond those two, the supporting cast is excellent, with Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, and Timothee Chalamet among the soldiers under Blocker’s command.


As a standard Western, or, in other words, the type of movie prevalent in the 1950’s and 60’s but almost non-existent today, Hostiles would probably come off as solid entertainment with some socially conscious themes. But Scott Cooper attempted to turn this into a new epic, despite the fact that the cast often seems to disappear in the majestic New Mexican scenery where the movie was filmed. Under those circumstances, the film’s failures are more evident, even though the individual scenes are often gripping and the finale definitely emotional (if predictable). Thus, Hostiles becomes a very well-acted, often gripping small movie with unrealized pretensions of being a grand, Dances with Wolves style epic. Viewed in the light of the rest of the January release schedule (the film was given a brief Oscar-qualifying run in 2017), though, Hostiles is overly ambitious but definitely worthwhile.

In this scene, Christian Bale confesses his hatred of Indians to a reporter.

Read other reviews of Hostiles: 

Hostiles (2017) on IMDb