Hostiles showed up a year or two back, being pushed by Netflix streaming. It certainly looked like it had potential. Lead actors Christian Bale and Wes Studi tend to be impressive in much of what they do and the previews of the wide-open spaces of Western America looked beautiful. The story, on the other hand, raised suspicions. Bale plays a veteran frontier Indian fighter who is tasked to escort an old enemy, and Indian chieftain, from New Mexico to Montana. He objects, saying in his mind the Chief shouldn’t be allowed to live, much less return to his homeland to live free for the rest of his days. However, over his feelings and objections, he must escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Studi), safely across the wilderness.
In finally watching it, it felt like I had seen it before. In particular, Hostiles was similar to The Homesman, a 2014 film directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones with Hilary Swank. As tempting it might be to accuse Hostiles of borrowing, there may be more to it than that. The original script was found by the widow of screenwriter Donald Stewart, who died in 1999. For whatever reason Stewart had not shopped the script around anywhere and so it existence was unknown upon his death. When his wife moved houses, she found the script and contacted Scott Cooper to direct, based on what she liked from some of his earlier works. Cooper rewrote the script but shares the screenwriting credit with Stewart. Obviously Stewart could not have relied on any twenty-teens moves for inspiration, although Cooper may have.
It hardly seems like giving away the ending to tell it, but ultimately Bale’s Captain comes to appreciate and respect Yellow Hawk as a fellow veteran of the wars between their respective cultures. Along the way, we discover that heroes and villains come from all races and cultures and that, while we forgive “us” for what we condemn in “them”, in the end we have to live with ourselves.
The script and story also don’t seem to be inspired by real events. While taking place against the background of America 1892, there do not seem to be any real people or events behind this story. Instead, one assumes, the purpose is to reflect the struggles and animosities of the present day. Maybe, even, it is a warning to us about the evil that men can do, either on their own initiative or because they are “just doing their job.” In the end, though, it seems there is less to it than meets the eye. However, what meets the eye – the vast expanse of the American West and a handful of mounted soldiers traveling through it – it quite impressive indeed.