As he kneels on the dusty plain with the barrel of his Smith & Wesson revolver biting into the tender flesh under his chin, United States Cavalry Capt. Joseph Blocker grits his teeth in agony. But it’s not a physical pain he’s enduring: It’s emotional anguish.
After 20 years of killing Comanche, Apache and Cheyenne natives—two decades of watching those Indian “demons” slaughter innocent white settlers—he’s being called upon to be a nursemaid to one.
The heated Indian conflict has been winding down, and Blocker’s commanding officer has ordered him to escort the despised Chief Yellow Hawk—the worst of the Cheyenne butchers—back to his home territory of Montana. Once there, Yellow Hawk and his family are to be set free.
It’s an atrocity. It’s Army bureaucratic nonsense. It’s the equivalent of spitting on the graves of all the dedicated soldiers who lost their lives hunting that red-skinned killer down, men who bravely rode by Blocker’s side.
Who cares if Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer? Who cares about the public mood? Who cares if the newspapers are all calling for his release? Those starched-shirted buffoons sitting behind their typing machines have never seen war. They don’t know the price paid. They can’t comprehend what it does to a man.
It’s enough to make a soldier like Blocker want to end it all. He’s suffered enough. It’s twisted him and hollowed him out. Even if this is supposed to be his last assignment before retirement, it’s an unconscionable one. His hatred won’t allow him to follow through on this order, no matter what killing himself might do to his reputation.
But then Joseph Blocker pauses to think again on all those men he’s served with. The men he’s serving with now. What will killing himself say to them? How will his dereliction of duty mar their sacrifices?
Blocker opens his squinted eyes and relaxes his grimace. He lowers his revolver, uncocks its hammer and slips it into his holster.
He’ll do his duty. One. Last. Time.
Despite the fact that Captain Blocker has obviously been deeply damaged by his bloody past, his humanity and compassion still peek through in his interactions with those around him. When his company comes upon a burned-out farm, for instance, Blocker and his men rescue Rosalie Quaid, the sole survivor of a terrible Comanche attack. Blocker gently comforts the emotionally savaged woman, and he gives her all the time she needs to help her bury her murdered family.
Yellow Hawk and his family reach out to Rosalie, too. His daughter offers the woman a blanket and a dress that she can use to replace the bloodstained clothes she’s wearing. Eventually Rosalie begins helping the Cheyenne captives in small ways in return, so much so that Yellow Hawk later thanks Rosalie for her spirit of kindness.
Blocker and Yellow Hawk begin to move past their losses in the past and their mutual feelings of hatred. Through their common struggle against still other attackers, they gain a mutual respect for each other. During one conversation, the men talk of the grief of losing friends. Blocker eventually tells the ailing Yellow Hawk that when the chief passes, a certain part of the man and soldier that Blocker has been for the past 20 years will die with him.
When Blocker’s fellow soldier and good friend Cpl. Woodson is badly injured, he needs to be left behind at a local military post. Woodson voices his regret for letting Blocker down, and the two men get slightly teary over having to part ways after so much shared service. “There’s no finer soldier,” Blocker tells the man. “Your daddy would be proud of you.”
Rosalie asks Blocker if he believes in God. And after a moment’s thought, Blocker states that he does. “But He’s been blind to what’s going on out here for a long time,” he also laments. Rosalie agrees but declares, “If I didn’t have faith, what would I have?” She later says that there’s a certain finality about death that she envies; but when those thoughts assail her, she says she has to “push them away.”
Cpl. Woodson is obviously a man of faith, too. He sings a spiritual tune asking for God’s guidance while the party sits at a campfire. He also quotes a few words of Scripture while burying Rosalie’s family members. When another soldier in the escort team is killed, Blocker puts a small cross made of branches on his grave.
After Chief Yellow Hawk passes, his family performs a burial ritual for him that we see but don’t hear.
While sleeping in the same tent, Blocker and Rosalie face each other, and she gently strokes his hair.
Without question, this is a bloody film. The movie’s opening moments depict a man and his two young daughters being shot with bullets and hit with arrows as they run in terror. That father is then scalped by a Comanche. Then a tiny infant is shot in the head—an event so emotionally wrenching for the child’s mother that she can’t bear to loosen her grip on the dead baby in its gory bundle until days later.
And that’s just the first few minutes.
The film’s violence spools out from there. Blocker’s escort mission is attacked numerous times by outside threats—by Comanche, by roving gunmen and by a rancher and his three sons. Men are shot while circling each other on horseback. Three women are kidnapped, then kicked and beaten viciously. It’s also implied that they’ve all been raped before being tied to a tree. (All three are covered with bruises and bloody scrapes.) Several soldiers and their Cheyenne charges are killed or badly wounded by attackers.
A man has a rope tossed around his neck and is then dragged behind a horse. After a bloody battle, a survivor is caught and stabbed repeatedly in the neck and chest. A soldier struggling with “melancholia” (what we would call depression today) commits suicide offscreen. But we see the bloody aftermath, including a ragged bullet hole in his temple. Someone else is chained to a tree and left there during a terrible storm. Still others are ambushed and left hanging by their necks from a tree branch.
We also hear several raw stories about various body-violating acts in which men were killed in grisly ways. All in all, it’s a tapestry of brutality, one that’s stitched together by an intense racial hatred between Native American tribesmen and white settlers and soldiers.
A half a dozen f-words and one s-word are joined by a handful of uses each of “d–n,” “h—,” “b–tard” and “b–ch.”
God’s and Jesus’ names are blasphemed a total of four times (God being combined with “d–n” on three of those).
A newspaper reporter slugs back a glass of alcohol. Blocker and another good friend, Sgt. Metz, drink tin cups of hard liquor while talking about their history together. Metz also lights up a cigar on a couple occasions. Blocker and another officer likewise have cigars after a meal. Metz gives a gift of tobacco to Yellow Hawk as a small token of apology for “the treatment of the natives.”
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Those words, or variations of them, have been attributed to several different sources, including philosopher George Santayana and Winston Churchill. But regardless of who first spoke that phrase, its point remains eminently true: If we forget the mistakes that people before us have made, we’ll likely continue making them.
Hostiles drives that message powerfully home. The painful slice of American history that this western depicts is a violent and often ugly one. It’s a time of hatred and a butchery between an encroaching mass of European immigrants and the native tribes that were spread out over the American plains in the 19th century. Hostiles shows us, viscerally, that hatred and violence in any age are horrible things.
That doesn’t mean that this is an ugly or horrible film. It’s actually something of a classic western that’s quite beautiful in its cinematography. Its script is thoughtful. Its performances are excellent. And its story—of a man who must grow beyond his own baked-in hatred—is moving and involving.
All that memorable history, however, plays out in brutal and graphic ways. And those moments can prove difficult to watch and listen to.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.