Captain Jefferson Kidd reads the world in black and white: line by line, graph by graph.
He travels the dusty roads of 1870 Texas with his pile of newspapers and tells stories of places far away, as exotic and ethereal as Shangri La: Chicago. Philadelphia. London. He’s not been to most of those places himself. But dressed in his finest suit and squinting through a monocle, the captain might as well be Marco Polo—an ambassador-adventurer, doling out strange stories for the price of a dime.
But Texas has its share of strange, too.
One day as he travels between towns, the Captain comes across a man, lynched, hanging from a tree. Near the corpse cowers a girl, perhaps 10 years old. She’s blond, but she wears a telltale deerskin dress and a terrified look. And when she speaks, the Captain can’t understand a word.
“I don’t speak Kiowa,” he tells her, knowing the girl won’t understand, either.
Near the wreckage of a wagon—the one the dead man was driving, most likely—he finds some papers that explain the girl. Seems she was abducted by the Kiowa when she was about 4 years old after they killed her family. She was discovered when the Calvary raided the Kiowa in turn. Her nearest surviving kin lives down in Castroville, near San Antonio. The man was bringing her home.
But the girl—Johanna, the papers say—doesn’t want this home. The only home she remembers is with the Kiowa, the only parents she knew were Turning Water and Three Spotted. And they’re dead.
The Captain takes her into a small town nearby—his next stop to read the news, anyway. As for the girl, well, he’ll leave her in the care of the government. The Bureau of Indian Affairs will ensure her safe return.
But it turns out the Indian agent is off on assignment, and he won’t be back for three months. This corner of Texas has no orphanages or kindly foster parents to leave Johanna with for the next 90 days. And even if there were, those folks likely wouldn’t be prepared to deal with this wild little girl who eats chili with her fingers and screams at the thought of a bath.
So the Captain changes his travel plans. “I’ll take her,” he says, even though the man’s old and the road to Castroville is dangerous. He can’t leave this child to the wilds of civilization. He’ll bring her safely home, he promises, if God so wills it—even though he knows God’s will can be a hard thing itself.
Captain Kidd brings his stories from town to town, the world in black and white. But if he and the girl survive this trip, he’ll have his own story to tell.
Captain Kidd is as kindly a man as you’ll ever find in this harsh, only partly settled country. The fact that he’s willing to risk his life and livelihood for this girl—a youngster who deeply resents being taken away from her Kiowa family—is evidence enough of that. He shows a great deal of patience with her, and he understands her hardships better than most along the road. He begins to teach her (or, perhaps, re-teach her) English, and he tries to begin the process of “civilizing” her—showing her how to use silverware and why not to swallow a whole tin of sugar in one go.
Initially, perhaps, Captain Kidd may have thought of Johanna as a little blond anchor in his life—threatening to drag him under the water. But Johanna proves to be a different sort of anchor, too. Captain Kidd, in his own way, is also lost—traveling Texas with just his newspapers for company, and running from a past he rarely speaks of. The twice-orphaned girl gives him the closest family he’s known for years, and she teaches him one or two valuable life lessons of her own.
Johanna’s pretty resourceful. And while the Captain saves the girl’s life a time or two, she saves his, too.
Captain Kidd is Christian, and we learn that he was a preacher once. When he comes across the lynched man, Kidd takes the man down and buries him and marks his grave with a makeshift cross. Kidd also bows his head solemnly in silent prayer.
[Spoiler Warning] But Kidd has a complicated history with God. Near the end of the movie, we learn that a family tragedy shook his faith, and he came to see that tragedy as a divine curse. “It was judgment, for all I had seen, and all I had done,” the former Confederate officer says. A friend reassures him that it wasn’t judgment: “It’s what we had to face—carry for the rest of our days.” The Captain seems to accept that. And when he visits a churchyard grave (again, marked by a cross), he takes off his hat and says another apparent prayer, weeping as he does so.
We hear a few references to literal curses and metaphorical demons.
Kidd carries a picture of his wife, a woman whom he says he “left” in San Antonio. We’re meant to believe that she and the Captain had a falling out, it seems. But whatever happened, it certainly doesn’t prevent a dalliance with a woman in Dallas whom we know as Mrs. Garrett: She lies in bed in her modest undies (one wide strap of her underthings falls off her shoulder) as Kidd ties his tie for a news reading. She makes mention of Kidd’s wife to him, though, and suggests he really ought to go to San Antonio and grapple with his past.
Most folks would see Johanna as a nuisance. But some see her as a horrific business opportunity. A man named Almay offers to buy the girl from Captain Kidd, offering as much as $100. He says that she’ll be paid for her work; her “pretty skin” guarantees that. When the Captain refuses, Almay and his associates say that they’ll just have to take her instead.
Almay and his two goons do try to take Johanna away from Captain Kidd in the Texas wastelands. It makes for a tense shootout, and some die (though not particularly messily). The most blood we see is that which trickles from a wound in Captain Kidd’s head.
Two other people are shot and killed in a riot in one rough-and-tumble settlement. As mentioned in the intro, the corpse of a man hangs from a tree. Buffalo carcasses lay in the sun, stripped of their hides while the muscles and meat beneath lay exposed. A wagon and two horses fall off a steep embankment, spelling the end of both animals. (One must be shot to put it out of its whinnying agony.) Someone is beaten badly and is nearly killed.
We hear Captain Kidd read about fatal tragedies in other parts of the world, while he and others talk vaguely about the Civil War. A paper includes some fanciful illustrations of a man chasing and killing Native Americans. A sandstorm nearly spells doom for a pair of travelers. We hear about the practice of “scalping.”
Johanna, we learn, has been orphaned twice over. We don’t hear details of how her Kiowa parents were killed, only that they were. But someone goes into detail as to what happened with Johanna’s German-heritage parents: Her mother’s throat was cut, and Johanna’s baby sister had her “brains bashed out.” We see the settlement where Johanna’s family was killed, as well—the sight of which the girl clearly remembers.
One s-word and a few other milder profanities, such as “d–n,” “h—” and “p–s.” God’s name is misused five times, four of them with the word “d–n.”
Some people drink in the background.
The Civil War didn’t do much to dampen racism in much of Texas; tensions among whites, blacks and Native Americans are clearly strong.
The man whom Kidd finds hanging from a tree is black, and he finds a flier that says “This is a white man’s country.” A whole Texas county has become something of a one-man fiefdom, with the man in charge making it clear that “Mexicans, blacks and Indians” aren’t welcome there. Many of Captain Kidd’s listeners are seething with anger—toward races they consider inferior to their own, and toward the Federal troops now making life difficult for them. Kidd tries to soothe tensions by simply saying, “We’re all hurting. All of us. … These are difficult times.”
Johanna is seen by many as a savage little girl, and indeed her manners are not particularly good at first. She treats many of the adults around her with disrespect. (But you might be a little fearful, too, if your parents had been murdered in front of you and those same people took you to a strange land with unfamiliar customs.) She also tries to run away, we’re told—leading someone to tether her to a pole in the ground as if she were a dog.
Based on a 2016 book of the same name by Paulette Jiles, News of the World departs from its source material at times, adding new peril—and problems—to the story. In the book, Kidd and Mrs. Garrett chastely hint at their mutual attraction instead of diving into bed together. The casualty count, both for man and beast, is higher here. Profanity sees an uptick, too.
It’s a measure of the book’s own pristine prose that, even with so much added, the movie is still as clean as it is.
News of the World is, in some ways, the story of two worlds coming together to the benefit of both. It gives us an honest-to-goodness hero in Captain Kidd—a man willing to fight for the innocent in every way imaginable, preaching kindness and patience to those who can hear him and brandishing a gun at those who won’t.
But most importantly, it’s a love story.
Captain Kidd and Johanna don’t understand each other at first. Johanna might as well be from Mars, as much as the Captain understands her. To Johanna, the Captain is just part of the system that killed the only parents she ever knew. I wonder how many foster parents may sometimes feel like the Captain? I wonder how many foster kids might feel like Johanna?
But slowly, and through their shared pain and the dangers they face together, the Captain earns Johanna’s trust. And as Kidd opens Johanna’s eyes to his world, she opens his to hers. They learn each other’s language, share each other’s philosophies and—mile by mile along this hard, dusty road—they learn to trust each other. And, yes, love each other.
News of the World speaks to the difficulties of relationship, of crossing cultural boundaries to truly meet people and earn their trust. And, as such, I think it holds lessons for all of us. Building those relationships takes time. It takes patience. It takes not just a desire to talk, but a willingness to listen. But when we walk that road together—day after day, mile after mile—we slowly earn one another’s trust. We learn one another’s stories.
And, as Captain Kidd would tell you, stories have power. He knows it better than most.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.