A Dark Humorless Somewhat Revisionist Western: “Hostiles” (Short Review)

Critics seem divided on the latest interpretation of the great American Western, Hostiles (2018).  Is it an “excellent modern take on the Western” or is it “a brutal, shallow Western“?  Well, there is truth in both views about the new movie directed by Scott Cooper.

The film is set in the West during 1892 in the waning period of the American Indian wars, around six years after Geronimo has surrendered and less than two years after the Wounded Knee massacre.  Christian Bale stars in Hostiles as Joseph Blocker, a captain nearing retirement.  BLocker has seen and done horrible things during the wars with the Native Americans.

Blocker’s final assignment is to escort an ill chief (Wes Studi) from New Mexico back to his tribe’s lands in Montana so the chief may die on his own soil.  Blocker, who has nothing but hatred for the Native Americans, does not want the assignment.  But he is forced into it.  So, he sets off with a few men and the chief and the chief’s family.

Along the way, Blocker’s group picks up new people and loses others.  The film opens with some Native Americans killing a family, with the only survivor being Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike).  Soon, Blocker’s group finds Quaid, still traumatized from her own experience.

The movie follows Blocker’s struggles with his beliefs about duty and about his old foes as he also tries to get his group to safety in a hostile land.  Some of the travelers have their own demons.  And other characters are somewhat developed, but the film mainly focuses on Bale’s character.

Not the Greatest, But a Good Addition to the Western Canon

There are echoes of other Westerns here.  Blocker’s changing assortment of traveling characters may remind one  of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), for example.  But the most obvious connection here is to John Ford’s beautiful classic, The Searchers (1956).  That film followed John Wayne’s racist character searching for his niece.  One may also recognize echoes of the final shot from The Searchers in the final scene of Hostiles, one of my favorite touches in the new film.

Hostiles does not rank among my favorite Westerns.  But it does a decent job telling a story steeped in realism as do many revisionist Westerns, even if one may debate how far the movie deviates from traditional Western stereotypes.  And the acting is superb all around.  The movie features another great performance from the always fascinating Bale, who also did a very good turn in the recent Western 3:10 to Yuma (2007).

The movie, though, is not an enjoyable ride.  While there are scenes of horrible violence, the movie lacks the excitement and pace of most Westerns.

Darker Westerns can still show flashes of joy or humor — as do The Searchers, Unforgiven (1992), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and The Outlaw Josey Wales. But there is little human joy or laughter in Hostiles.  The story reveals some friendships and human connections.  But the dour movie could have done more with them.  Those few moments still seem buried in the darkness of the story, perhaps because the camera rarely leaves the grim Blocker.

Hostiles is a good movie and anyone who enjoys Westerns should check it out.  I see why critics and viewers are somewhat split on the film, with Rotten Tomatoes giving it a 72% Critics Rating and a 71% Audience Rating. While Hostiles is not a fun ride and one may debate its success as a Revisionist Western, the film gets credit for trying to do something deeper than most recent action movies.

What did you think of Hostiles? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    What Song Does the Sergeant Sing About a Sparrow in “Hostiles”?

    While watching the Western Hostiles (2018) you may have noticed a character singing a beautiful song while playing mandolin around the campfire.  What was the song?

    Although it sounds like it is a timeless folk song, it is a new song written by Ryan Bingham called “How Shall a Sparrow Fly.”  Bingham recorded the song for  Hostiles, which stars Christian Bale.  And that is Bingham playing the song as a sergeant in the movie.

    In the video below, Bingham plays “How Shall a Sparrow Fly.”

    Bingham also co-wrote with T. Bone Burnett the excellent Oscar-winning song “The Weary Kind,” which appeared in Crazy Heart (2009).  That film, which starred Jeff Bridges, was directed by Scott Cooper, who also directed Hostiles.

    Bingham recently explained to Variety that Cooper asked Bingham to be in Hostiles when he saw some video of Bingham on horses. After getting the script, Bingham worked up “How Shall a Sparrow Fly” on his mandolin while touring.

    Unfortunately, “How Shall a Sparrow Fly” did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Song. But it is a wonderful song from the singer-songwriter.

    “How Shall a Sparrow Fly?” appears on the Hostiles soundtrack with a full orchestra.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The House I Live In: Josh White’s America

    Josh White — who was born on February 11, 1914 — had one of the more interesting American lives during the twentieth century, even though he died at the young age of 55 on September 5, 1969.  He was a folk singer, guitarist, songwriter, civil rights activist, actor, friend to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and much more.

    He was an important figure in the century, although many people born in the last fifty years may not have heard of him.  His music influenced many of the major performers who came after him.  Allmusic calls him “one of the unquestioned linchpins of the first stirrings of the folk revival.”

    His work for civil rights and social justice made him a target of the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.  He testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he read the lyrics to one of his recordings, the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” that was written by Abel Meeropol.  Many twisted his words, so that for a period he was blacklisted by both the Right and the Left.

    White lived such a full life that I can’t even begin to summarize it here in a short blog post.  I encourage you to read more about him, including the long Wikipedia post about his life and this video of his son Josh White Jr. telling stories at The Bohemian Cafe in Greenville, South Carolina on August 20, 2016.

    The House I Live In (What Is America to Me?)

    White was among the first to record many songs we know today.  He had the first hit recording of “The House I Live In (What Is America to Me?).” The song, which was written during World War II by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (a pen name for Meeropol), captured a dream for what a post-war America might be.

    The children in the playground,
    The faces that I see,
    All races and religions,
    That’s America to me.

    You know the song, even though you may not have been around when White’s version was a hit.  But the reason you know the song is because of White.

    It was White who taught “The House I Live In” to Frank Sinatra, who became identified with the song.  After White taught it to Sinatra, Ol’ Blue Eyes sang the song in an honorary Academy Award winning short for MGM. The short was made to oppose anti-Semitism.

    As for White, I don’t know, but it seems that through all of the problems, he loved this country. Otherwise, he would not have done so much for it.

    The blacklisting by the music industry ended in 1955, and he began performing in various venues around the world. The TV blacklisting ended later in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy asked White to perform on a national civil rights program, “Dinner with the President.”

    Subsequently in that same year, he performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. And in January 1965, he performed at Lyndon B. Johnson’s inauguration.

    Today, the lyrics of “The House I Live In” may seem a little naive. Some might find them cheesy. I suppose, though, that most people no matter what their political party, would agree that it was a nice dream. And while White never saw the accomplishment of the dream, he reminded us that it is one still worth fighting for.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    John Prine New Single: “Summer’s End”

    John Prine is releasing a new album The Tree of Forgiveness, which features the first single, “Summer’s End.”  Any John Prine album is cause for celebration, but The Tree of Forgiveness is extra special because it will be the singer-songwriter’s first album of new material in thirteen years.

    The new album  contains ten songs written or co-written by Prine.  The co-writers include Pat McLaughlin, Roger Cook, Dan Auerbach, Keith Sykes and Phil Spector.   Also, the album features special guests Brandi Carlile (harmony vocals on some songs), Jason Isbell (guitar), and Amanda Shires (fiddle and background vocals).

    Prine released the first single, “Summer’s End,” with an accompanying video.  Joshua Britt and Nielson Hubbard edited and directed the video, which highlights the lyrics.

    In the song, which may allude to death as much as the ending of summer, Prine beckons the listener to “come on home.” So, check out “Summer’s End,” which was written by Prine and Pat McLaughlin.

    Prine, who has survived bouts with cancer, also announced a world tour starting in April 2018.  And Prine’s label Oh Boy Records will release The Tree of Forgiveness, which is one of Rolling Stone’s most anticipated albums of the year, on April 13.

    What is your favorite John Prine Song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Man Behind the Organ in “Like a Rolling Stone”

    Alan Peter Kuperschmidt, who became known as musician Al Kooper, was born on February 5, 1944. Kooper played a number of important roles in the history of music, such as work as a producer and writer and for organizing Blood, Sweat & Tears. But most people know his work from a chance role he played in one of the greatest rock songs of all time, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

    On June 16, 1965, Kooper showed up for the second day of the production of “Like A Rolling Stone,” which was being produced by Tom Wilson. Kooper, who was a 21-year-old session guitarist, arrived merely as a guest of Wilson.

    Initially, Kooper hoped to work his way into the session on guitar. But then he realized that guitarist Mike Bloomfield was more talented than him.

    After Paul Griffin moved from playing organ on the song to playing piano, Kooper tried to get Wilson to let him play an organ part. Wilson rejected the idea. But when Wilson left the room, Kooper went into the session and took over the Hammond organ. Wilson let Kooper remain, and Kooper added the now famous organ riff to the song. When Dylan heard the playback, he reportedly asked for more organ.

    The following video explains Kooper’s role in the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” including an interview with Kooper. Check it out.

    Kooper went on to other amazing work, including playing organ for Dylan on tour and playing that instrument on the recording of “Just Like a Woman,” released in 1966.  Among his many other accomplishments, he discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, producing and performing on their first three albums.  That’s him again on organ in “Free Bird,” even though he was officially credited under the name Roosevelt Gook.  He also played piano, organ, and French horn parts on The Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

    Kooper’s most recent solo album is WHITE CHOCOLATE (2008).

    What is your favorite instrument on the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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