Review / ‘Hostiles’ (MA) *** and a half

Christian Bale as Blocker in “Hostiles”.

DIRECTOR Scott Cooper based his screenplay for this film on a manuscript by Donald E Stewart (who adapted several of Tom Clancy’s novels featuring Jack Ryan).

It’s 1892. Army captain Joe Blocker is assigned to escort the Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from their prison in Fort Berringer, New Mexico, to their ancestral lands in Montana. Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer. The order has come from the US President.

About to retire, Blocker hates all Native Americans and Yellow Hawk in particular, whom he has seen commit terrible crimes against settlers. It’s made clear to Blocker that if he refuses the order, his pension may be withheld.

In a short, very violent prelude, white settler Quaid and his children die in a Comanche raid. Blocker’s party comes by the burned out homestead and finds Rosalee Quaid unharmed in body, wracked with grief and anger in her soul, carrying her dead infant.

Those events form the foundation of a film canvassing a range of both military and emotional themes for soldiers and prisoners alike. Their progress is punctuated by attacks from settlers and Comanches, slowly whittling the army detachment down to half its original number. They traverse country that I suspect has seldom if ever formed the location for a feature film, by turns spectacular, beautiful, welcoming and  confronting.

As Blocker, Christian Bale provides the film with a firm foundation. But what for me was the real surprise was the casting of English rose Rosamund Pike as Rosalee Quaid. Ms Pike, by any measure a true beauty in the classical sense, seems unfazed by the physical demands of the role.

Hollywood used to make excellent westerns. Their replacement with the fantasies and improbabilities of outer space is regrettable (I described the original “Star Wars” as nothing more than an outer-space western). Examining issues that more than a century later still resonate, “Hostiles” is not your ordinary Western.

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