Some people describe this as a Western for our day. True, it has gunfights in the classic mode, but the real story, which is more reflective of our current sensibility, concerns the feelings of the blocked Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale).
Blocker has spent his career fighting angry Comanche and Cheyenne tribesmen who have slaughtered innocent homesteaders and Blocker’s comrades in arms. And Blocker has done a lot of killing in return. He’s a smart, thoughtful man — reads Julius Caesar’s military reports in Latin, knows the Book of Proverbs — but years of war have taken their toll.
For his last assignment, Blocker is ordered to escort Yellow Hawk, an aging Cheyenne warrior and old enemy, from the stockade at Fort Berringer in New Mexico to the Valley of the Bears in Montana, where the cancer-riddled old man was born and wants to die.
Blocker hates Yellow Hawk and doesn’t want to do it, but he has spent years obeying orders and he wants his pension. He relents.
As the caravan of soldiers set out with Yellow Hawk and his family, they come upon Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose husband and children have been slaughtered by horse-stealing Comanches, and she joins the group. Then there are battles with the same Comanches, then with evil fur trappers, then with a cavalryman accused of murder and, finally, with other bad guys of the expected type.
Through it all, Yellow Hawk and his family are wise, honorable people who offer comfort to the stricken woman and then assistance to Blocker and his team.
The movie makes clear that American views of the dislocation of natives had begun to shift by the late 19th century. Blocker’s experience makes him understandably wary of people who have not seen the frontier as he has. We also learn that Blocker isn’t a total bigot because, very subtly, we see that he goes out of his way to express his respect for an injured African American corporal on his team.
I wanted to like this movie. Christian Bale’s performance is very good, as is that of Rosamund Pike, although the arc of her story gets a little extreme, which is more about the screenplay. The fellow cavalry characters get less screen time, but they too are interesting if underdeveloped.
What bugged me, I guess, was that wise Yellow Hawk and his family were mostly reduced to accessories illuminating Blocker’s evolution into a more humane person.
Plus, the movie is too long.
I’m not sure American filmmakers are interested in a Western about an actual Native American, but there is one whose story I’d like to see.
The man was Quanah Parker, the son of Peta Nocona, a Comanche chief, and Cynthia Ann Parker, an Anglo American girl who survived a massacre and was adopted by the tribe. (When she was “rescued” and returned to her family many years later, she was deeply unhappy.)
Over his life, Quanah became a Comanche leader who negotiated for his people. He adopted Western dress and took up ranching, but he kept his hair in braids, rejected Christianity and had many wives. He exchanged visits and went hunting with Theodore Roosevelt. In short, he participated in two very different cultures at a time when such was uncommon.
People who grow up in Texas learn about Quanah Parker in state history classes, but the rest of the country might appreciate an introduction.