How the Western has changed since those earlier depictions of the valiant cowboys or charging cavalry versus the snarling, savage, barely human “Red Indians” – Native Americans to you today.
Perhaps the change started with “The Searchers” (1956), when John Wayne went in search of Natalie Wood, who’d been abducted as a child and had now “gone native”, though a real turning point was “Soldier Blue” (1970), which shocked its audiences with the white man’s massacre of the so-called savages.
This film marks a further interesting development in the genre in that we have a central character, cavalry Captain Joseph J Blocker (Bale), who through his own experience, just as in those old time Westerns, regards the natives as cruel savages. And his view is backed in the opening sequence, when a white family are brutally murdered by a group of natives. Blocker is then charged with escorting dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Studi) and his family, all of whom have been held as prisoners for many years, back to Montana, so Yellow Hawk can die an honourable death in his homeland. Along the way they encounter distraught widow Rosalie Quaid (Pike), sole survivor of the massacre we saw earlier. In the course of their journey, Joseph, Rosalie and the Cheyenne family have to live and fight together and learn to respect each other. That might sound a bit like a tale of contemporary politically correctness created to align with today’s changed thinking but the development of respect between Blocker and Yellow Hawk convinces through a strong story and good performances
It is a long journey but filled with action both external and internal, in which both white and “red” tribes show both cruelty and nobility. Such as a sequence where the women, both the Cheyennes and Rosalie, are captured and, it is implied, raped by white fur hunters and Blocker and his men and Yellow Hawk and his son work together to rescue them. Then there is the white prisoner Wills (Ben Foster) they are charged with on the way. To what extent can he be trusted?
Bale is impressive as Blocker, a brave man and a good soldier, hardened through his experiences, who has to learn to empathise with others. I don’t think he smiles once in the whole movie. Pike too is first class and very moving. It may be a bit of a cliché that the breakthrough in the relationship between the two sides comes initially through the empathy she and the Cheyenne women develop with each other but it is convincing and rings true. Veteran native American actor Studi lends gravitas to the role of Yellow Hawk, and is well supported by Adam Beach as his son.
Perhaps the journey seems a little long at times but it is holds the attention through a wealth of always relevant incident and development.