We went to a movie screening in Santa Fe last night. The picture was called "Hostiles" and it's set for release in Santa Fe tomorrow. This was a special screening sponsored by IAIA to benefit its cinematic arts department.
I'd read a bit about the movie, and I didn't care much for what I read. It was said to be a western and a very violent picture about the travels and travails of a Native Cheyenne family from captivity in New Mexico to their home place in Montana under the escort of a military company led by a captain who despises Indians and who had killed many, including some of the warriors, women and children associated with Chief Yellow Hawk, the dying Indian who wishes to return to Montana with his family before the end. Going Home.
In some ways the story is formulaic, in others it's a modest step beyond Hollywood formula westerns, a genre repeatedly raised from the dead.
The picture is essentially an allegory and as an allegory it is as formulaic as practically any western I saw on television as a child. Through hard lessons, warriors on both sides of the pony soldier/Indian divide learn respect for one another and eventual peace -- though most of both sides have to die first.
So here we go again.
Starts off with an isolated pioneer family, the Quaids, being massacred and burned out by some wild Comanches, who kill and scalp the father, and kill the three children as they are running away with their mother -- who is the only survivor. Barely. Comanches in the audience were already on edge at their depiction in this movie, and at the end, some complained. There's a long, long history of Comanche/Pueblo interaction in New Mexico. Memories are long, and forgiveness can be tough to come by. I won't descend into Both Sider-ism. Comanches have an earned reputation for cruelty among the local tribes. But they were and are also long-time trading partners and sometime marriage partners between Pueblo people and Comanches. It's complicated.
This story is taking place in 1892. Supposedly. The frontier had closed. The Indian Wars were supposedly over. Comanches specifically had been "pacified" for decades. Renegades? Maybe. But the premise is that these were known Comanche raiders just like raiders of old, and the isolated pioneer family were just like isolated pioneer families of old... The whole set up is an anachronism which might have had a point, but it didn't really. In 1892 it was almost unheard of for pioneer families to be out in the Nowhere by themselves. What the Quaids were doing there, I have no idea. They didn't have a farm, nor did they have cattle. They had a corral with horses, and the horses are supposedly what the Comanche raiders wanted -- besides satisfying their simple savage bloodlust, of course.
So the Quaids are massacred and their log house (it's much grander than a cabin) is burned and the horses are absconded with. Rosalie Quaid alone survives by running into the hills and hiding under a rock while clutching her dead and bloody baby to her bosom. For plot purposes, the Indians can't find her.
She returns to the burned out homestead and we will meet her there again soon.
Meanwhile at Fort Berringer, NM, after rounding up some Apache no-goods (a young couple and their son), Captain Blocker (Joe), notorious Indian fighter, is ordered by his colonel, with authorization from the president, to escort dying Chief Yellow Hawk and his family back to their ancestral lands in Montana. He is to do this against his will in order to secure his military retirement pension. Or something.
Joe says no. Colonel says, "You will." It is explained that Yellow Hawk and Joe have history of mutual slaughter. Joe will not be party to escorting and freeing the savage. "No punishment is 'too much' for Yellow Hawk" and his people. After some tussling over the role of a warrior pony soldier in conflict with the savages and mention of the many atrocities on both sides, the soldiers' atrocities always justified, of course, Joe reluctantly agrees to the colonel's order. That pension figures prominently.
The expedition to Montana is organized. Yellow Hawk, his son, grandson, daughter and daughter in law are put on horses for the long journey north, escorted by a rag-tag band of soldiers, and they set off.
Joe is filled with anger and rage, and as soon as the party is out of view of the fort, he orders Yellow Hawk to take up a weapon so he can kill him. Yellow Hawk refuses, so Joe has him and his son placed in chains and the women humiliated ("take out the bitches' braids") and they continue on until they come upon the burned out Quaid place where they find Rosalie and her dead children inside. "Shh, they're sleeping," she says. Wesley Quaid is dead and scalped outside.
After some struggle, she is persuaded to part with the dead so they can be buried, but she insists she will do it herself. It doesn't go well. Eventually her husband and children are buried nevertheless, and Rosalie joins the party heading north, though she is initially terrified of the Indians she will be riding with.
As one of the consultants to the picture remarked afterwards, they're ALL PTSD. Oh yes.
I don't think I need to detail the rest of the plot except to say they make it to Montana, Yellow Hawk succumbs to his cancer, and every body else dies either along the way or in a shoot out at the Montana burial grounds, except for Joe, Rosalie and Yellow Hawk's grandson. The three of them make their way to the railroad at Butte. They get on the train for Chicago.
Well, I didn't want to see it and I wasn't very happy that I did.
While I wasn't happy about it, I did get some story ideas for a dramatic approach to the continuing problem of police abuse and murder in the US, a problem which is closely related to our various imperial wars of aggression, and is more distantly related to the original sin of Native American genocide.
I'll contemplate that for a while, and then...
A well-crafted and insightful review of the movie: