The movie “Hostiles” is a deeply disturbing depiction of life on the American frontier as it finally becomes engulfed by the forces of modernity. But for all the inevitability of the outcome, the many piecemeal struggles were often in doubt and the personal sacrifices often immense as this tale so vividly demonstrates.
The story is an odyssey woven around a duty bound Army officer returning a pardoned Indian chief and his family from their imprisonment in Arizona to their hunting grounds in Montana. The story has a gritty and fatalistic outlook. In keeping with the realistic bent it both indicts and praises Indians and soldiers alike as everything transitions from a wilderness steeped in barbarity to a civilization with the rule of law.
The Stone Age culture of Native Americans is properly portrayed as overmatched by the technical superiority of American arms. Nor is their culture glorified or stereotyped as in the “noble savage” novels of James Fennimore Cooper. Rather interminable internecine warfare between tribes seems rooted in a profound cultural, and even a racial, bias. Indeed, the group central to the story, which itself sadistically tortures to death US Army captives, nevertheless exhibits a profound disgust for a neighboring tribe which kills for the sake of killing well beyond any immediate or necessary need.
Nor are the conquering American frontiersmen or settlers placed on a pedestal. Rather their virtues are those of survival, albeit by advantage of modern arms, rather than any moral strength, which incidentally seems to be uniformly lacking.
The US Army Calvary is a band of brothers with bonds that go beyond friendship and even family. But it is far from idyllic as it also fosters an implacable hatred of the enemy, criminal self-indulgence, naivety, and despair. In a bitter irony, the young heroine finds the strength to endure great personal loss while a hardened US Army veteran does not.
In another unbelievably cruel vignette, the heroine is forced to listen to an idiotic liberal Commanding Officer’s wife wax poetic about showing kindness and mercy to the downtrodden natives. Nor is this a criticism of her character as she herself finds forgiveness but not based on the shifting sands of emotional fantasy but rather on the bedrock of realistic understanding.
What redeems the relentless horror of the story is the discovery of humanity in former enemies that gradually shines through from both sides. And in a triumphant but much understated ending, three traumatized human beings put aside anger and fear to find love and happiness in each other’s company.
On a personal level, the hero displays virtues unusually common in US Army Officers not to make promises he cannot reasonably keep. And it is refreshing to note that these encompass both his personal and professional lives.
That the ending lacks a strong emotional component, being entirely devoid of tears or shouts of joy, makes the resolution all the more satisfying. And so I would be very satisfied to recommend it notwithstanding the emotional violence.