By Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country
Boasting an all-star cast and an unwavering commitment to authenticity, the new film Hostiles takes place in 1892 and tells the story of an Army Captain (Christian Bale) who reluctantly agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to tribal lands. On the treacherous journey they meet a widow (Rosamund Pike) whose family was murdered on the plains by Apache and offer their help.
As the former rivals make their way from an isolated Army outpost in New Mexico to the mountainous lands of Montana, their relationship moves from antagonism to compassion, demonstrating humans’ capacity for change. The ensemble cast includes Ben Foster, Timothée Chalamet, Jesse Plemons, Q’orianka Kilcher, Rory Cochrane and Adam Beach. Kilcher and Bale previously worked together in 2005’s The New World with Kilcher portraying Pocahontas.
Studi steals the film with his noble profile speaking volumes as his dying character comes to grips with mortality and morality. He waged war on the invading whites but has now become a symbol of the pride and nobility of the indigenous, given a last chance at grace by US President Harrison who allows him a passage home.
But the way home is never easy, attacks from both warring tribes and drunken fur trappers litter the path.
To ensure authenticity in the Native-focused content of the movie, director Scott Cooper worked with acclaimed Native filmmaker Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals, Skins), and Native academic Dr. Joely Proudfit as consultants. Their organization, The Native Networkers, has a mission to build bridges of understanding through media and enhance cultural knowledge and understanding through Native representation.
The involvement of Eyre, Proudfit, and the film’s other Native consultants made an indelible impression on Cooper.
“The consultants on this film have been extraordinary and have taught me things that my research never could have,” he says. “They were on set every day to help the actors with language, with gestures, with rituals. Their work was of the utmost importance, and it was deeply gratifying for all of us.”
I reached out to Proudfit and Eyre who were busy at Sundance Film Festival but took time to answer some questions.
How did Native Networkers get involved with Hostiles?
We were told Scott Cooper was looking for Cheyenne consultation going into production of his movie HOSTILES and we were given the script to read. After reading the script we thought, if Scott can pull this off, we’d love to work on this movie consulting. We meet with Scott and his production team and we were hired as The Native Networkers.
What was the biggest challenge in making the film authentic?
We saw it less as a challenge and more of an opportunity to share, listen, learn and collaborate. It was refreshing to work with Scott Cooper a director who was open to ideas and collaboration. The biggest challenge in making HOSTILES Native portions of the movie authentic were finding the right Cheyenne people to work with The Native Networkers. Usually, cultural people don’t work in movies and movie people aren’t specifically used to Cheyenne culture, so our job was to bridge the two together and oversee that for the benefit of the movie.
Finding the right cultural consultants to work on the project was important to us. There is no one size fits all. We wanted to focus on adding authenticity to the story therefore finding the right cultural consultants was important. We had several cultural consultants both men and women. It was also important to us to acclimate the various parties on how best to work together, providing a comfort level for a cultural exchange to happen that deepens the level of storytelling.
What was your take on the theme of the film that “we are all hostiles”?
The theme provides for the conversation about the complexity of humanity. I think the metaphor is accurate as we are all that in someone else’s eyes. This is a brutal yet beautiful film that honestly and realistically addresses some very hard themes. As Native Americans, it’s a struggle to merely be seen in media as human beings, multi-dimensional people. Often, we have been relegated to stereotypes or binary characters. Westerns of the past had a lot to do with the dehumanization of how Indians are presented. With the film HOSTILES, the director used the theme “we are all hostiles” to allow for a deeper dive into humanity which moves beyond the confines of race. I think this theme at this time in our country is a critical one, stimulating conversations about forgiveness, reconciliation, family, humanity resonating with audiences from all walks of life.
The makers of Hostiles went to great lengths to solicit completely authentic Native input on both sides of the camera, and should be rewarded for that effort with the full support of the Native community. We should all run to the theatre to see this film. We applaud Scott Cooper and his team for tackling these themes as honestly as he did. I hope this film inspires more storytelling from and with Native American storytellers either leading the effort or in collaboration with filmmakers open to our stories.
Hostiles is now available on DVD and Video on Demand (VOD)