Christian Bale, Wes Studi, and Rosamund Pike star in Scott Cooper’s treacherous, soul-searching, life-changing journey through the American West.
New Mexico, 1892. America’s Indian Wars have seen their bloodiest battles. Capt. Joseph J. Blocker, a cavalry soldier who’s spent years of his life fighting the Cheyenne, is given a challenging mission. He and some fellow soldiers are asked to accompany the terminally ill Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk and his family from where they’ve been imprisoned back to their Montana homeland. Yellow Hawk is to be buried at his birthplace. The captain and his group set out with danger on the horizon and very little trust for those they’re accompanying.
Writer-director Scott Cooper’s new film Hostiles follows these characters’ mettle-testing trek across the frontier. It’s a physically threatening journey for the group and for a pioneer woman they pluck from a tragic situation along the way, but it’s also packed with emotional hurdles. How can formerly warring sides come together for a common mission? Can they find respect and appreciation for each other in the face of outside dangers?
The director, who adapted the story from a screenplay by the late Donald Stewart, has already picked up plenty of critical acclaim for Hostiles’ melding of the physical and emotional. The film, starring Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, and Adam Beach, has been celebrated as a traditional western with an enlightened social message.
Cooper is widely known for the 2009 Oscar-winning drama Crazy Heart, which starred Jeff Bridges as a washed-up country singer trying to take his life back. Since that cinematic splash, Cooper has continued to work with high-profile scripts and stars. The 2013 thriller Out of the Furnace found him directing Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck; 2015’s historical crime drama Black Mass paired him with Johnny Depp.
Hostiles was a little different for Cooper than past projects. While it was a grander period drama with more production challenges, the director decided to work outside the traditional studio system to get it made. There was no domestic distributor in place at the time of filming.
“Getting any movie made is a miracle, and I was really lucky to have a sole financier, Ken Kao, as he also liked Black Mass,” Cooper says. “It was such an arduous shoot. ... We wanted to make the movie the way we wanted to.”
After making waves on the festival circuit last year, Hostiles was ultimately purchased by the Byron Allen-helmed Entertainment Studios. It saw a limited release at the very end of 2017 and was scheduled for wide release in January of this year.
Cooper says he rarely considers golden trophies and accolades while shooting his films. “I never think of that when I’m making a film, as so many factors go into the [awards] selection process. I was speaking with my mentor Robert Duvall, a man who absolutely should have won more than one Oscar, and it is confounding what wins and what doesn’t.”
That said, Cooper is confident that “this is my best film to date.”
“For a potential audience to get off of the couch [and go see a movie], you’ve got to create a different and hard-hitting film,” Cooper says.
Although more violent than old John Ford films such as The Searchers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Hostiles unfolds in the style of a classic western, with underlying themes of bigotry and redemption. Filming in part at the historic Ghost Ranch 60 miles north of Santa Fe, Cooper and his cast and crew were certainly subject to the elements.
“Everything we filmed was on location,” says Studi, who takes on the role of Chief Yellow Hawk in the film. “We were shooting during the monsoon season, July through September, and we were frequently under a lightning delay. It would rain for days, and we were riding horses that were sopping wet with steam coming off their bodies; and actors were on horseback in wet wool period clothing.
“I felt so sorry for Scott, who is a wonderful director, as it was so frustrating to have to wait and wait for the weather to clear. The location became a character in the film — similar to The Revenant — and Mother Nature was frequently not a friend.”
Yet speaking to Cooper now about the experience making Hostiles, he describes it as nothing less than a dream come true.
“What filmmaker wouldn’t want to make a film in the American frontier, with man overcoming or succumbing to the challenges of nature, and with the confiscation of and battles over Native lands in search of Manifest Destiny?”
Cooper has nothing but kudos for Bale, his lead actor and confidant who helped to inspire the Hostiles screenplay.
He’s “my closest friend,” Cooper says of the 43-year-old Academy Award winner. “I wrote the part of Blocker for Christian. We have a bit of a shorthand, as I tend to overwrite the dialogue, and frequently his physicality and even a look can convey more than what’s on the page.”
Known throughout his career as a “method actor” who immerses himself completely in every role, Bale approached Hostiles with the expected level of intensity. He explained to EW.com how he came to personify the character of Capt. Blocker:
“Most of the time I’m just sitting in a room quietly staring at a wall,” he said. “It’s one of the few jobs where you can actually say ‘I’m working right now’ when you’re doing that — and just taking yourself to all the different places that the character would’ve been to and gone through so you don’t feel like you’re trying very hard by the time you get to be working.”
Costar Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Wrath of the Titans) told The Times of India that she and Bale barely spoke off-screen. “He is intense in a wonderful way. ... He would keep a distance. Our characters in Hostiles are quite dysfunctional but have this profound connection that we let happen without ever really talking about it.”
The film’s scenic location certainly boosted the experience for all, Bale says in an email: “Exploring the canyons and being out in the high desert was really nice; riding your horse and shooting your guns, now that was a lot of fun.”
Bale already thrilled western fans with his performance in 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma remake, starring as a good-guy rancher forged into an unlikely partnership with an outlaw played by Russell Crowe.
Bale’s cinematic résumé is long and impressively diverse beyond his western work. He’s gone through stunning physical transformations for roles. He won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the 2010 drama The Fighter. He put an iconic spin on a dark superhero in Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed trilogy of Caped Crusader movies, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. And he’s been working with high-profile directors since his childhood days, when he was featured in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun in 1987.
Fellow Hostiles cast member Adam Beach says he was in awe of Bale on set.
“Christian brings such intensity and commitment to his character, as I believe the story arc represents the growth of his humanity,” Beach says. “He and Scott Cooper worked so hard to keep the film real that they were almost like twins in their vision.”
Bale wasn’t the only actor Cooper had in mind for Hostiles. The crucial role of Chief Yellow Hawk was written for Studi, and Cooper envisioned Beach as Yellow Hawk’s son.
A full-blooded Cherokee, Studi is known for his compelling portrayals of Native characters in such films as Dances With Wolves, the title role in Geronimo, An American Legend, and the guide Magua in the 1992 film version of The Last of the Mohicans.
Studi, 71, says he was drawn to the redemption story in Hostiles’ plot, which builds on the necessary alliance of its two main characters.
“We overcame the dangers by coming together, and old enemies became allies,” Studi says of the relationship between Capt. Blocker and Yellow Hawk. “We have to fight off buffalo hunters and the Comanche who want to take the women, including my daughter, daughter-in-law, and a pioneer woman [played by Pike] we pick up along the way after hostiles killed her husband.
“Most other characters I’ve played, I’ve had empathy with, but this character is a dying man. As I’ve never died before, I can only imagine what this would feel like,” Studi says. “His main concern might be the family he is leaving behind, and he now cares for things around him — not for himself any longer.”
Studi searched for a way to embrace and take on the weakened physical condition of his character: “I had to both look and feel older than I am, and it was difficult to slow myself down.”
Fellow cast member David Midthunder plays the renegade Comanche leader Buffalo Man. Hostiles served as a reunion with Studi — the two had worked together many times before.
“It’s always great to see and work with Wes, both a friend and talented actor, and I’m a longtime admirer of his work,” Midthunder says. He, like Studi and his fellow cast members, felt connected to Hostiles because of the complexities of its narrative and characters.
“If you look deeply into the title, you have to ask, ‘Who is the real hostile here?’ ... From any one character’s perspective, the other character is the hostile, and the person telling the story has the humanity.”
Whether it leaves audiences with such questions or simply wows them with its story and picturesque setting, director Cooper says he’s more than satisfied with Hostiles.
“All I can really do is make the film that I set out to make. I did that, and couldn’t be prouder of it.”
From the February/March 2018 issue. Available now on newsstands (or click here to order the magazine).