Good westerns are few and far between nowadays. “Black Mass” writer & director Stuart Cooper’s cavalry vs. the Indians western “Hostiles” (**/12 OUT OF ****), co-starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, ranks as above-average. Not only does “Hostiles” resemble John Ford’s greatest western, “The Searchers” (1956), starring John Wayne, but it also pays tribute to Ford’s farewell film, “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964), with its revisionist sentiments about the ghastly treatment of Native Americans. Ford enjoyed a rewarding career in Hollywood depicting the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans in his popular John Wayne cavalry epics: “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), and “Rio Grande” (1950). Ultimately, Ford performed an about-face where Indians were concerned with “Cheyenne Autumn.” Similarly, critics are comparing “Hostiles” to Clint Eastwood’s final oater “Unforgiven” (1992), and its sentiments about killing. Eastwood’s western image evolved from his portrayal of an amiable cowboy in television’s “Rawhide” (1959-1965) to a ruthless bounty hunter in Sergio Leone’s bloodthirsty Spaghetti westerns before the actor made his characters contemplative in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), “Pale Rider” (1985), and “Unforgiven” (1992). “Unforgiven” constituted a meditation on violence where it is depicted as anything but glamorous. Director Stuart Cooper wastes too much time on these two themes: the annihilation of Native Americans and the repulsion for bloodshed. Unfortunately, “Hostiles” ponders these profound themes rather than entertaining us with unforgettable action. Nothing happens for long stretches as the cavalry ushers a notorious Indian chief from New Mexico to Montana, where the government has decided that he may die in honor. During that long trek, the cavalry encounters other murderous Native Americans as well as some wholly despicable Caucasians. Clocking in at a dreary 135 minutes, this scenic horse opera seems as apologetic as it is saddle-sore.
“Hostiles” unfolds on the frontier in 1892 with a sudden, suspenseful Indian attack on peaceful New Mexican homesteaders. Murderous Comanche raiders wearing war paint descend upon Wesley Quaid (Scott Shepherd of “Side Effects”), his wife Rosalee (Rosamund Pike of “Die Another Day”), and their teenage daughters with little warning. Not only do these ferocious savages kill Wesley without difficulty, but they also gun down Wesley’s two daughters, Lucy (Ava Cooper) and Sylvie (Stella Cooper), as they flee behind their mother into the woods. Miraculously, Rosalee evades the hostiles, even though she has her newborn cradled in her arms. She hides in the woods while the Indians burn their house down and then ride away. Tragically, Rosalee realizes afterward the baby in her arms is dead, too. She bundles the bodies back to the burnt house and covers them up as if they were asleep. The scene shifts to a faraway U.S. Cavalry fort. “3:10 to Yuma” actor Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker, an unrepentant, Indian-hating cavalry officer. He shares the sentiments of Civil War-era General Phil Sheridan, who said: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang of “Avatar”) summons Blocker with orders for him to take a dying Cheyenne, Indian Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi of “Last of the Mohicans”), and his family back to Montana. According to Colonel Biggs, Yellow Hawk is dying from cancer, and President Harrison has granted the chief’s wish to die in his ancestral lands.
Initially, Blocker is not ecstatic with those orders, and he refuses to accommodate the colonel because he abhors Indians generally and Chief Yellow Hawk specifically. We learn throughout “Hostiles” that Blocker has been slaughtering Indians for twenty years. He has taken part in atrocities galore, and he has no qualms about killing Native Americans. Nevertheless, Biggs points out, if Blocker doesn’t carry out the Presidential order to resettle Yellow Hawk that he will have to convene a court-martial. Moreover, Blocker will lose his Government pension. Miserably, Blocker agrees to shepherd Yellow Hawk to Montana. No sooner has Blocker’s small patrol left the fort than he orders his sergeant to shackle Yellow Hawk. He doesn’t trust him. Eventually, they encounter the grief-stricken, traumatized Rosalee, and Blocker’s troopers bury her dead for her. Afterward, Rosalee accompanies the escort. Before they reach Montana, Blocker and company will tangle not only with the same Comanches that wiped out Rosalee’s family, but also hostile white ranchers and trappers. At first, Blocker doesn’t change his attitude toward Chief Yellow Hawk. By the time they reach their destination, the cavalry captain experiences a change of attitude. Yellow Hawk wins Blocker’s respect. When a pugnacious white landowner demands that Blocker get off his sprawling acreage or he will kill them, presidential order notwithstanding, Blocker no longer has any qualms about killing his own kind. Incredibly, Rosalee undergoes a similar change, and she sympathizes for the chief and his plight. When the final showdown comes between Blocker and the rancher, Rosalee pitches in to help, demonstrating her accuracy with a repeating rifle.
Stuart Cooper, who also helmed “Crazy Heart” (2009) with Jeff Bridges and “Out of the Furnace” (2013) with Christian Bale, adapted “Hostiles” from an unpublished manuscript by the late Donald Stewart, best known for his screenplay for “The Hunt for Red October.” Basically, “Hostiles” qualifies as an average oater, bolstered by a sterling cast. Bale couldn’t be better, neither could his co-stars, especially Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, and Stephen Lang. Ironically, despite its apologetic attitude to Native Americans, Cooper wastes Wes Studi and Adam Beach peripheral roles that keep them on the sidelines. Whatever the reason, an interesting episode where Yellow Hawk and his son sneak out of camp to kill the Comanches harassing them has been reduced to an expository dialogue scene rather than an exciting action scene. Studi and Beach wind up looking little more than noble. Sadly, “Hostiles” is also predictable, too. Inevitably, we know Captain Blocker is going to change his attitude, display grudging respect for his nemesis Yellow Hawk, and then butcher those whites who interfere with his orders. Furthermore, “Hostiles” suffers from mumbled dialogue, murky campfire scenes, and languorous stretches where not even the rugged scenery can relieve the monotony.