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The biggest lie in the old western movies was there are good guys and bad guys. Of course, westerns weren’t and aren’t the only institutions to pretend someone can be all one or the other, but that was a part of their charm. No one had to agonize over who was supposed to die. As a child, I loved westerns for their lie, because I wanted to believe the world was predictable. All you had to do was find which people weren’t like the others. When, as an adult, I discovered John Wayne testified against former friends who were falsely accused of being Communists, I felt betrayed.
Recently, my husband and I rented HOSTILES from Netflix. The film was made in 2017 and stars Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, and Wes Studi. It’s not a throwback western, nor is it falsely sweetened. In fact, as the director Scott Cooper mentions in his comments, the brutal conflicts within could be and are happening in the world today in pretty much the same way. Evil times such as wars push participants toward evil deeds. Some enjoy the excuse to be cruel and violent, becoming twisted and amoral. Most are scarred by the experience.
The old westerns never dealt with PTSD. Some were made before the condition was recognized or treated. Neither did they spend much time on forgiveness. The only good bad guy was a dead bad guy. The label made killing okay. Those viewers who bought into the all-or-nothing philosophy were astounded when real war vets from WWII or Vietnam purposely met and forgave their enemy counterparts. Wars depend on the us-or-them, enemies-vs-good guys mentality. But outside war, we might discover we can relate.
In HOSTILES, the viewer watches dimensional characters from opposing sides come to know one another as they confront a common foe. To see someone who is obviously utterly unlike yourself gradually revealed as a human being not entirely unlike yourself is a growth experience. To seek out the revelation, I like to befriend people from backgrounds and cultures I can’t imagine. Research tells us that work groups composed of diverse viewpoints produce results superior to those of groups whose members are alike. Even reading novels by authors from distant lands can enhance your ability to see a larger, more accurate view of the world. We are all alike and all different. Once you’ve seen that truth, witnessing anyone persecuted for simply being becomes painful.
Finally, the film hints at the enormous difficulty of walking away from a past that has been tainted with violence and hatred. Aside from forgiving your enemies, how do you forgive yourself for what you’ve done? Our vets face these same questions. And sometimes, when we finally see what we’ve denied, we civilians do, too.