Scott Cooper's acclaimed western drama will be released Tuesday on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Critics, film festival attendees, and mainstream moviegoers — especially, but not exclusively, Native American moviegoers — found much to admire in Hostiles during its theatrical run last winter. The film will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday, April 24 (and currently is available on digital platforms) so that an even wider audience can access and appreciate writer-director Scott Cooper’s story of Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), a legendary Army captain who, after stern resistance, begrudgingly agrees to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (C&I reader favorite Wes Studi) and his family back to tribal lands.
“With this film,” Cooper says, “I wanted to honor the legacy of wonderful films in the western genre. The legacy of Ford, Hawks, and Leone. But I also wanted to modernize the genre with themes that touch us all today: reconciliation, healing, and inclusion — because it’s no secret that we are a polarized nation and growing more polarized by the day; no secret that we are in desperate need for reconciliation, inclusion, and equality.
“So through this film, I’ve tried to better understand our dark and unforgivable past toward our Indigenous peoples, and the experience has taught me that to succeed, to move forward, we must succeed together, listen to one another, and better understand others’ ways of lives. If I’ve done my job, a conversation can be started as to how two opposing forces can come together as one, and move forward in peace, harmony, and unison. Just as bitter rivals do in 1892.”
To fulfill his ambition to realistically and respectfully depict Native American culture, Cooper reached out to experts like Joely Proudfit.
Proudfit, a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians, has an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science with emphasis in public policy and American Indian studies from Northern Arizona University. She currently serves as professor and department chair of the American Indian Studies Department, and director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center (CICSC), at California State University San Marcos. Proudfit also is the founder and executive director of California’s American Indian & Indigenous Film Festival, which is annually presented by the CICSC every November.
Along with filmmaker Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals, Skinwalkers), she recently formed The Native Networkers, an alliance to promote American Indian representation throughout the film industry. Proudfit and Eyre often are approached to be technical advisors for films dealing with Native American characters and customs, and they served in that capacity on Hostiles.
We spoke with Proudfit earlier this week about her work on Scott Cooper’s acclaimed western drama. Here are some highlights from our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
Cowboys & Indians: How do you decide which film projects you want to associate yourself with? And what was there about Hostiles that made you eager to get on board?
Joely Proudfit: Well, most filmmakers, when they’ve attempted to include an American Indian plot line, they typically have gotten it wrong. They’ve either overcompensated in one way or the other, or have promoted stereotypes. But Scott Cooper is a pretty amazing artist, as a writer, director, and former actor. He took this story, and I think he really was thoughtful in his process of trying to make it relevant to some of the themes that this country is addressing today. I really could see the issues of humanity that I haven’t seen before [in a film], especially with a western. I mean, the movie opens in 1892, in the so-called Indian Wars era, and looks at renegade Indians, which is something we’ve seen before — but it also looks at the humanity from both sides, and forces us to critically think about these issues.
It wasn’t a heroic thing — you know, a white savior, Indian savage type of film. If anything it was more of an Indian hero, white savage film, and that’s something we just haven’t seen before. Really, I thought it was just a serious look at this era where two kinds of cultures are coming together, and how human beings would respond to this. I just thought that was a beautiful story to tell, as painful as it can be, especially for Native people, to revisit that kind of history. I think one of the things that we can really appreciate [about Hostiles] is its brutal honesty.
C&I: Yellow Hawk and his family are Northern Cheyenne. Can you describe how you went about making sure the movie reflected that specific culture?
Proudfit: These particular filmmakers tried to tell a very authentic story — not just for truth and authenticity, but for depth and storytelling, for that layered approach. In other words, they wanted that kind of honest portrayal of reality that one only can get when you know what you're talking about. So when they asked us to come in and advise and talk about how Native women would respond or react, what they would be wearing, how they would address a particular moment in time — well, in this case, it was Northern Cheyenne. And remember, there’s Northern Cheyenne, and there’s Southern Cheyenne, so there are different dialects. We brought in a Northern Cheyenne chief, we brought in Northern Cheyenne women — I think we had, altogether, five different Northern Cheyenne individuals to really look at the intricacies of culture, reaction, emotions, and language. And they really felt like they were part of the storytelling process. That, I think, elevated the storytelling.
When you’re looking at Native plot lines, it’s very rare that you get to see individual tribes as they are being portrayed here. That’s what makes Scott Cooper an amazing director — his beautiful layered approach. You would think it would be a no-brainer in some respects, but there are 572 tribes in the United States. And when you tell stories using various Native cultures, you should want to get that right by really understanding how these particular people would be responsive to these particular scenarios, as well as what they would wear, how they would react. The emotional response should be as detailed as the moccasins and hairstyles for both men and women. There’s a scene [in Hostiles] where Little Bear, the little boy, a young Northern Cheyenne boy character in the film, is given a gift at the end of the film by Christian Bale's character, Captain Blocker. And he responds by doing a hand mannerism, and that is a distinct Northern Cheyenne response to how a child would respond to someone giving him a gift. I think something like that adds to a really authentic, culturally appropriate and appreciative way of telling stories.
C&I: Christian Bale is a British-born actor playing an American-born cavalry officer who speaks Cheyenne. What sort of accent do you think he had while speaking the language?
Proudfit: [Laughs] Christian Bale was so good at learning the Northern Cheyenne language, he almost seemed to learn it with ease. But I don’t want to underrate his effort. I spent a good chunk of the time working with him and the Northern Cheyenne language-speakers. We did this both face-to-face, as well as through telephone calls, and it was amazing how quickly he seemed to pick it up. So much so that the cultural speakers would giggle after the first time he would respond when they would teach him a word or a phrase, because they thought it was funny how quickly he picked up the language. In fact, he was so good at learning the Northern Cheyenne language, and delivering the Northern Cheyenne language in his lines, that we had to tell him to pull it back a little bit — because after all, his character was a white man that learned this language. He wasn't supposed to be a natural born speaker of this language. So he pulled it back a little bit. It’s just amazing how good he was at this.
In this exclusive video, Christian Bale, Wes Studi and Chris Eyre provide more background on the making of “Hostiles.”