I’ll say right off the bat: this movie is not for the faint of heart. It portrays a period of American history that we in the 21st century can be deeply ashamed of: the horrible treatment of the Native Americans by our predecessors. It’s a bloody, violent history shown in a bloody, violent film. Yet, the film has its moments of grace, reconciliation, and conversion.
It’s 1892 in New Mexico and Fort Berringer is a prison outpost that houses a number of incarcerated Native Americans. One, a Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk (West Studi), is dying of cancer and has requested that he be allowed to return to his home in Montana along with his family. His request granted by no less than President Benjamin Harrison himself, the most unlikely character is chosen to escort Yellow Hawk through dangerous territory: Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale). Blocker is a legendary soldier, known for having numerous Indian kills under his belt. He doesn’t hide the fact that he hates those they call “savages” for he’s lost many friends in the fight for western expansion. He’s on the brink of retirement and only agrees to the assignment after he’s threatened with court martial and loss of pension.
With a small group of soldiers, they set out only to come upon a burnt homestead. Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike) is the sole survivor of a Comanche attack that killed her husband and three small children. She’s forced to join Blocker and his posse who show remarkable kindness and understanding to the grieving widow. As they pass through the rough country, they come under threat from the following Comanche and others.
Most striking in the film is Christian Bale. His performance of Joe Blocker is understated but powerfully moving. Blocker speaks sparingly but Bale’s eyes capture the range of emotion Blocker feels. Hate, anger, sorrow, kindness, and compassion all manifest in this complex character. Rosamund Pike also excels as Rosalee. Having done research, not only into the history of the time portrayed in the film but also about the stages of grief, Pike almost disappears into her character as she moves from broken widow to strong protector.
Amidst the violence of this film, there is much to reflect on, especially as the Season of Lent is just two weeks away. The character of Blocker gives an example of conversion, perhaps a bit unrealistic within the limited scope of the film, but at least he was beginning to change his tune as he got to know the real people behind the native faces that he despised.
There’s a scene in “Hostiles” that I think is a true moment of grace. When the soldiers first find Rosalee, she’s clutching the body of her dead baby, her clothes bloodied and her heart broken. When she sees Yellow Hawk and his family, she’s afraid of them, especially after what she just lived through. That night, around the fire, one of the Native American women offers Rosalee some of her own clothes so she can change. This act of compassion from one mother to another signals a significant change in the character of Rosalee.
Who are the ‘hostiles’ referred to in the film’s title? There is no clear cut good guys and bad guys in the movie amongst the main characters. Blocker and Yellow Hawk have both killed and suffered from violence. Rosalee suffered severe loss at the hands of the Comanche yet comes to love the members of Yellow Hawk’s family. Otherwise intelligent and decent people become killers through the racism of the times. The movie poster declares “we are all…” before the main title. Yes, we may all be capable of being the “hostiles” to one another, but our faith tells us that with God’s help and grace, we can choose to live as people of kindness and compassion, drawing on God’s promise of redemption and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.