Though there are many micro-genres encompassed by the umbrella term of “Western“, most of these films can be generally grouped into either “cowboy showdown” (Shane, High Noon, Unforgiven) or “wilderness journey” (The Revenant, Bone Tomahawk, Scott Cooper’s new film Hostiles). While the cowboy showdowns focus in on specific, almost always white, men in towns and outposts, the journeys have to tackle the wider implications of the origins of America, which means bringing in indigenous characters. Hostiles is the latest in a long line of films that really fail in the endeavour to write native characters well, begging the question of whether the genre has really come all that far from its more openly racist origins.
The way in which Hostiles fails to do its indigenous characters justice is rather typical of a 2010s film. It’s never out-and-out racist or bigoted, and you can tell that Cooper thinks he’s handling the issues well, but the Native Americans are either unknowable, terrifying savages or infallible dispensers of airy cosmic wisdom. The idea that it was the natives rather than white colonists that caused the most savagely unstoppable terror on the American plains is insultingly, almost amusingly wrong, yet still all too common in films that refuse to see the issue through indigenous eyes.
Recently, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant made some important steps in the right direction. Though the Native characters still sometimes fall into the background of Leonardo DiCaprio’s wilderness trek, they are distinct, with real motivations and goals that aren’t “help the white man understand”. For example, Arikara chief Elk Dog (Duane Howard) is seeking family, revenge, and the material wealth required to survive in the harsh frontier, much the same as Hugh Glass. One could even argue that Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald is eventually killed by his own blinding bigotry.
Iñárritu’s film is enriched by its successes on this front, building a world that feels lived in, with a past and future away from the events of the movie. Hostiles cannot claim any such success, its burgeoning America generic and cardboard-y in comparison to The Revenant’s awed grandeur. It’s telling that the most high-profile western to really start getting its indigenous characters right comes from a Mexican auteur, and a less comfortably white perspective of the birth of the US ended up giving us a properly unique and visceral look at a deeply mythologised moment in history.
At the logical extreme of US cinema’s treatment of native populations is S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. An extreme, gratuitous cannibal horror, it took every trope of the “uncivilised wild west” and dialled it as far as it would go. The villainous troglodytes live in caves, eat people, and kidnap white women. As an exploitation film, these story choices were too uncomfortable for some, and it would be giving the film too much credit to portray it as a satire on conventional westerns, but it serves a useful purpose as a comparison point.
Yes, the troglodytes are completely fictional creations, but in Zahler’s world they are still, presumably, natives of the wilderness. Though that may seem problematic, especially given the lack of presence of any realistic native group, it also highlights the more insidious problem of films like Hostiles. Though they may not be monsters in a literal sense, Scott Cooper’s indigenous characters are hardly better drawn as actual, three-dimensional humans, the lazy writing hinging everything on the excellent actors to add any sort of depth.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum to Hostiles and Bone Tomahawk sits Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, an Australian outback western set for a UK release in March. On the festival circuit, it wowed not just for its immersive atmosphere and sublime performances, but for a story driven by an abundance of aboriginal characters, led by the immediately iconic Hamilton Morris. Their conversations with one another range from profound to silly, flitting between languages as they negotiate a world that is being violently and unstoppably claimed by white settlers and their conventions. It makes for a far more poignant story; the losses suffered by the characters are more permanent, historical hindsight blending with savage violence and injustice for an experience as righteously infuriating as it is entertaining.
Thornton understands that by relegating entire peoples to generic set dressing, not only are you woefully misunderstanding your own history, you’re deliberately robbing yourself of powerful stories. We don’t particularly need to see another white man’s ride through the plains on a self-flagellating quest, especially if you’re going to execute it as unremarkably as Hostiles does. In a genre that needs innovation to survive, and can produce all-time great films when this innovation comes through, the future of westerns quite clearly lies in the promotion of indigenous voices, both in front of and behind the camera.