It’s good to be young and beautiful.
If you can’t be both, then you should probably be beautiful. If you are a character in a tragic story-line, it also helps to be white.
That’s all I can think of as I watch the final scene of Hostiles. It was a dark and bloody movie, and it certainly had its moments, but in the end it was our beautiful male and female leads, both white, who made it through the carnage. Oh yes, there was one Cheyenne child who survived the ordeal, but he was hardly a full character. We don’t really get to know him. His hopes and dreams are hardly present in the story-line, not those of the many characters native and white who never made it to ride off into a better life at the end of the film, not those of the two lead actors who accompany him. He is present at the end of the story, but largely as a symbol of something about them. The story is about our two beautiful white survivors.
It always was about them.
Hostiles begins with a Comanche raid on a remote homestead somewhere in the west. Rosalee Quaid (played by Rosemund Pike) survives the raid by hiding in a rock outcropping after seeing her husband killed & scalped and all three of her children shot. In the next scene, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) captures a small group of Apache and drags them in chains to fort in New Mexico which will serve as their prison for the immediate future. It is quickly established that Blocker has done far worse than this in his days fighting Indians out west. He’s seen worse, and he’s done worse, and we’ve seen just enough of his own cruelty to believe it. The message is pretty clear from the get-go the frontier is brutal. Both native and non-native alike are engaged in terrible acts of violence and suffering abounds.
It is 1892, just a couple years after Wounded Knee, and we are looking the tail end of the frontier in American history. The characters filling this story are fully immersed in the bloodshed. That bloodshed has left Blocker and the soldiers with him lacking a bit of humanity and full of hatred. Rosalee Quaid is for the moment left out in the wilderness to suffer alone with the bodies of her dead family. This a world without much in the way of redeeming qualities.
It turns out that Blocker will soon be retiring from military service. The major plot takes shape when he is given one final assignment. He must escort Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne war chief, to the man’s home in Montana. Blocker objects to this. Yellow Hawk is an old enemy. Yellow Hawk has personally killed a number of Blocker’s friends, and so he wants no part of any plan to help the man regain his freedom, but Yellow Hawk is dying. With the aid of Indian reformers, he has obtained an order from President Harrison authorizing his own release along with a military escort home. Whether he likes it or not, Blocker must take Yellow Hawk and his family to Montana.
The story-line that follows is every bit as violent as the opening sequence. Blocker would rather kill Yellow Hawk than help him (in fact he tries). They find Quaid of course. Her suffering provides Blocker with a chance to prove he still has a human side, albeit one reserved at the moment for some people and not others. The whole lot of them are pursued by the same Comanche that’d killed Quaid’s entire family. Blocker and his troops struggle to fight them off with the help of Yellow Hawk and his son (played by Adam Beach), both of whom are still in chains in this opening exchange. In time, Blocker is convinced to remove their chains, and shortly after they come to find the remaining members of the same Comanche raiding party have been killed in the night. Blocker is both relieved and embarrassed. Soon after, he and his Indian wards find themselves fighting fur traders who have kidnapped the women. An additional battle or two with an imprisoned soldier rounds out most of the fighting. They arrive in Montana just in time for Yellow Hawk to die peacefully in his homeland.
…but not before he and Blocker become friends.
When a local rancher objects to Yellow Hawk’s burial on his own property, the resulting battle leaves everyone dead but Blocker, Quaid, and one young Cheyenne boy, all of which leads us to that final scene.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot that this movie gets right. Their use of Cheyenne is particularly well done, and the characters are both vivid and interesting. The grimness of the whole story-line would normally be a strong selling point for me. Hell, it was. I liked that part of this movie.
What I didn’t like was the convenience of the story. The magic negro can as easily be just about any other magic minority, and Yellow Hawk fits that role perfectly. He has lived through the same violent period of American history that Blocker has, and he has committed atrocities just as Blocker has. He has even spent much of his recent life in prison. Yet he lacks the bitterness of Blocker and the rest of the soldiers. Yellow Hawk’s wisdom is a stabilizing force throughout the film. Studi is brilliant, as usual, and so the performance isn’t as over-the-top as many who have played such roles. Still, you can’t help but notice this is another story in which a minority with great wisdom helps the central character, a white man, overcome his own demons and face the world.
…but only after this same minority-advisor has died.
Yellow Hawk isn’t in possession of magical powers, which is a staple of the Magic minority character. Or is he? We never do learn how he and his son managed to kill the Comanche raiders, and it didn’t likely actually involve magical powers. Still, the action is inexplicable in terms of the plot line. Nobody else could have done it, and we never do see it as anything but an accomplished fact. It’s not a supernatural event, but it might as well have been.
And then of course, there is Yellow Hawk’s death, preceded of course by a conversation with Blocker, one in which Blocker finally achieves some peace, realizing that Yellow Hawk too has lost friends in the wars they have both fought. It’s a deeply moving scene. It’s also a very familiar scene. Once again, the death of a great and wise person of color leaves our wounded white protagonist with the strength and wisdom to put the rest of his life back together and move on.
And so the stories ends, as I began it here, with Quaid and Blocker and that one Cheyenne child at a train station. She will evidently raise him, a sort of replacement for her own lost children, and Blocker will go on to build a new life for himself, a life that might now be worth living, now that he has finally set aside the hatred he carried in the opening scenes. Even the child is safe now.
We should be happy.
I should be happy.
But I’m not.
Why is the child there anyway? He is there to confirm the healing of the two main white characters, both of whom now treat him with kindness despite enduring great loss at the hands of native peoples. He too accepts them, but his acceptance was never central to the plot. It was Quaid who could hardly be expected to endure the presence of Indians a few scenes into this film. It was Blocker that wanted to kill his Indian wards in the opening scenes. It is their ability to treat Indians well despite everything that we are supposed to find reassuring in the end.
This a very convenient reassurance, coming as it does at the price of so many other lives.
It would be easy to accept the victory we have been offered in Hostiles, easy to feel good because hearts have healed. The price of this healing was the lives of countless others, and in particular the life of the very Indians we are now reassured these two main characters no longer hate and fear. Every major native character was killed, and the only one we are left with is a child who will now be raised in the white world.
This really is a perfect symbol for the time of boarding schools and general allotment. Our heroes will go on to live in a world less violent, but a world less violent because many never made it into that world with them. The one ‘savage’ left alive at the conclusion of this story is no threat,of course, so what are we to make of the peace these adults make with him? They will go on to enjoy a well-earned peace, so we are shown, but what about him?
This child will no doubt survive.
But will the Indian?