Hostiles & Fort Apache – and how to properly capture misery on screen

hostile and fort apache.jpg

Misery seems to be the trend lately with just about anything you can watch on screen.  We’ve written about this a lot lately, including just a few days ago.  It’s everywhere.

Take two movies I watched on my last plane flight.  First off, The Last Jedi.  I remember Star Wars growing up, I loved it.  What fun.  So did we really need a Star Wars movie where Luke was sad, tired, and depressed?  Where Solo is a corpse?  Where all the other main characters are confused, angry, etc, etc?  Forget all the plot controversy, it was just an unhappy movie to watch.

The other airplane flick I caught was Hostiles.  This Western had a reputation as violent and covered with despair.  It was certainly that, the opening scene involves the murder of three children including an infant.

Overall, I didn’t hate Hostiles, I kind of enjoyed it.  But it’s not a great movie.  Why?  Because other than the awfulness, I’m not really sure what the movie was trying to do.  At the end of the movie I was asking myself: “What was the point of all that?”

Instead of running my mouth and complaining about all this malaise and darkness in our entertainment again, I’m instead going to contrast Hostiles with another dark movie in Fort Apache.

Granted, this is unfair.  Hostiles has some top name actors but they’re not legendary.  It’s directed by some random guy.  Fort Apache has two screen legends and probably the guy in the top three of directors all time.  It’s like comparing a rabid panther against a duck in a cage match.  But bear with me, because there are a lot of similarities between these movies.

They’re both traditional Westerns that focus upon the Army, specifically the cavalry.  Both have humanized and sympathetic portrayals of the American Indians.  Each has a substantial number of the main cast die on screen.  And they end with an intent that you reflect upon the misery you’ve just watched.

I’m going to focus on the endings of these movies because otherwise this post would be sixteen pages long.

Hostiles ends with Christian Bale’s character burying Wes Studi in his native land.  Then a stereotypical gang of racists comes up and demands Bale dig up Studi’s corpse.  A gunfight ensues in which everybody dies except Rosamund Pike, Studi’s grandson, and Bale.  Pike and her now adopted son go to Chicago, Bale is going to walk away, but ultimately gets on the train with them as it pulls out.  Roll credits.

Fort Apache ends with Henry Fonda getting most of his regiment wiped out in a foolhardy battle worthy of Custer.  John Wayne actually wants to duel his regimental commander at one point to stop it.  Then Wayne and Miguel Inclan (playing the Apache warlord Cochise) have a poignant conversation about the situation.  Cochise lets Wayne and his remaining soldiers live.  We end with Wayne now the regimental commander and when confronted with the myth of Fonda’s last stand by reporters, Wayne lets the myth live.  As in, Wayne lies.  Roll credits.

So what was the point of Hostiles?  Well, I think what they were going for is at the beginning of the movie Bale hates Studi and only his orders are keeping him from murdering Studi straight up.  Yet by the end of the movie Bale is willing to shoot his own kind to defend Studi’s grave.

Okay, got it.  But the problem is that’s all there is going on.  In the meantime there is the aforementioned on screen murder of three children, three women are raped (off screen), numerous very bloody battles, and the final scene in which pretty much everybody dies horribly.

So if all Hostiles has is Bale simply learns not to hate at least one Indian and his family, then what exactly was the point of all the murder, rape, violence, gore, etc?  Was it to set the scene and mood?  Was it to provide the action and shock that the writers and director seem to think a modern movie demands?  You could have told the story of Hostiles with maybe only one or two people gunned down.

That they didn’t do this means that any character progression in Bale, that he ends up a better person, is simply just lost amidst the gore, the awfulness, the constant death.  It’s why as the viewer I had to actually think about what the point of the movie was afterwards.  Because in the moment all you can feel is the violence shoved right in your face for two hours.

Contrast all of this with Fort Apache.  At it’s heart this movie is a study of Fonda’s character.  It’s about how an otherwise decent, hardworking man can be consumed by arrogance, racism, and narcissism that leads to the unforgivable sin where a military commander loses most of his men in a battle that need not ever have been fought.

It gets even worse with Wayne.  Wayne ends the movie by perpetuating the myth that Fonda’s actions were right, just, and glorious.  Then Wayne takes his regiment and leads them on the attack against the Apache.  All the moments Wayne had where he conversed with Cochise, where he knew Fonda was wrong are blown away by the simple act: Wayne is going to do his duty.

And thus you see the point of Fort Apache is the great wheel that was the Indian wars of the American West.  Everybody gets ground down in what in the end was a series of savage endless wars that lasted decades.  Decent guys in Wayne, Fonda, and Cochise trying to do the right thing, their duty, leads to death where alternatives were still available.  It’s brutal to consider.

Fort Apache accomplishes all of this without a single gory murder, rape, or scene where Wayne and/or Fonda are shown in some kind of vicious traumatic rage, or hatred, or crying or screaming like crazy people, all things in Hostiles repeatedly.  Yeah, this is a movie made in 1948 so of course it’s tamer, but the point remains valid.

I think television and movies are going down two trends.  The idea is that a tale must be an adventure theme park ride or it must shock you.  In both cases, the plot is a side concern.

The Jurassic movie recently came out.  I’m sure that film will make over $1B.  It has a plot that probably makes no sense, but that doesn’t matter.  People see this movie because it’s a theme park ride where dinosaurs eat people.

Where Hostiles could have really taken it’s time with a thick plot full of thought and motives, it instead spends most of its on screen time in the shock category.  And thus, its message gets lost in the darkness.

I don’t need all my entertainment to make me happy.  Dark movies have their important place.  But give me the Fort Apache kind any day.  That’s the way to do it.

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