Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hostiles

It's a tell. When a Western opens with a homestead mom teaching her sweet children about adjectives, you know something bad is about to happen. It does, in the form of a Comanche raiding party. Only the wife and mother Rosalie, played by Rosamund Pike survives. Brutal. That's hostiles for you. 

No wonder US Cavalry Captain Joseph P. Blocker (Christian Bale doing gruff) hates them. Indians are like ants he says, no matter how many you lock up or kill, they just keep coming. No wonder he isn't too pleased at being made to conduct his old enemy, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and family back to Montana so the Chief can die in peace. 

Turns out that Blocker has done some pretty savage things in the past. As has his old comrade in arms, Master Sergeant Thomas Metz. Both were involved in the genocidal Indian wars. Gave as good (or bad) as they got. 

Around the campfire on an early stage of the journey a soldier sings Guide me O thou great Jehovah, making the trek to Yellow Hawk's homeland a kind of pilgrimage; a journey of faith.

The embittered Blocker and his party encounter the grief-stricken Rosalie. The battle hardened Captain treats her with great dignity and respect. Same with Yellow Hawk's family. 

As they brave repeated Comanche attacks, a grudging respect develops between Blocker and Yellow Hawk. The film doesn't demonise the Cavalryman or romanticise the Indian ChiefBoth were capable of barbarity and bravery, depravity and decency. The problem isn't race, but broken humanity. 

Fresh from officer training, Lieutenant Rudy Kidder talks about seeing his first action with PTSD-addled Metz. The Master Sergeant assures him that after a while you cease to feel anything when taking a life. 'That's what I'm worried about.' Kidder responds. But in reality Metz is crippled by guilt. At one point he offers Yellow Hawk some tobacco as a peace offering and asks to be forgiven for what he did to Native Americans. Metz longs for mercy, but despairs of finding it. 

At one point Rosalie sees Blocker reading a Bible and asks whether he believes in the Lord. The Captain says he does and indicates trust that Providence is watching over them. The traumatised widow confesses that were it not for her faith she couldn't have coped with what happened at the homestead. But there a no easy answers and Rosalie admits she'll never get used to 'the Lord's rough ways'.

Blocker finds redemption in fulfilling his mission. Yellow Hawk is laid to rest in Montana, but the pilgrimage is costly. 

Hostiles holds up a mirror to the grime and grandeur of humanity. It's a sometimes harsh reminder that, 'All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God' (Romans 3:23). 

While Blocker is exposed as a racist at the start of the film, it's a profoundly anti-racist movie. The closing scene hints at the possibility of love and racial harmony in a hostile world. 

The film is beautifully shot and well acted. We managed to catch it in Bristol on the way home from dropping our son off at Nottingham for Uni after the Christmas break. Wasn't showing more locally. 

Given man's race-fueled inhumanity to man, mercy and forgiveness are hard to find, but poor old Metz need not have given up hope, 

0 all-embracing Mercy,
0 ever-open Door,
What should we do without Thee
When heart and eye run o'er?
When all things seem against us,
To drive us to despair,
We know one gate is open,
One ear will hear our prayer.

[Oswald Allen, 1861]

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