Hollywood’s recent attempt to depict Frontier life captures the reality of “hostiles” shooting various weapons at one another, but the real history is more interesting, Jada Thacker explains in this essay.
By Jada Thacker
A theatrical poster for the recent American Western movie “Hostiles” depicts its principal characters – a Frontier widow, a hardboiled Indian fighter, and an Indian chief – with a helpful blurb stating the story’s theme with the subtlety of a striking rattlesnake: “We are all hostiles.”
Some critics think the movie somehow ought to have been a different one – that it should have included a bit more of this, or a bit less of that…whatever. Maybe they have a point. Though it hardly seems fair to ding “Hostiles” for being an imperfect example of the ideal Frontier fantasy.
But it is fair to criticize a movie for being a perfect example of a movie genre that consistently ignores the most essential themes of the American Frontier. “Hostiles” succeeds brilliantly as the latest addition to a very long list of movies that focus laser-like attention on hostile Frontier characters, rather than on the consequences of Frontier hostility.
The American Frontier was not, as Hollywood formerly portrayed it, merely a canvas background prop for a violent soap box drama starring Cowboys & Indians – or, as more recently re-imagined, an ethnic melodrama featuring white Bad Guys versus Noble Indian resistance.
Nor can the American Frontier be considered a particularly hostile place without expunging from history the slaughter-grounds of Cannae, Verdun, Stalingrad, or even America’s own Gettysburg – each of which produced more bloated corpses than any number of Wild Wests. In an encyclopedia of human violence, the massacres at the Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee would be relegated to a footnote.
Yet, the significance of the American Frontier endures. William Faulkner was not referring to the Frontier experience when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” but he was right.
Unacknowledged by the silver screen, contemporary America remains as hostile as it ever was to the…