My wife and I saw the new Western film “Hostiles” last week.
It essentially could be described as a sort of Westernized version of Fury. Christian Bale aptly depicts a character named Captain Joseph J. Blocker, a career U.S. Cavalry officer suffering from what is known today as PTSD.
Blocker is a man of his time, someone who would be known in 21st century parlance as a virulent racist – not only a fighter but also a hater of Indians who has essentially undergone a moral hallowing out after spending an entire adulthood wrestling away the Western frontier from its indigenous inhabitants.
In what amounts to a final indignity shortly before his being pensioned off, Blocker is assigned what he regards as the deeply abhorrent task of escorting an aging, cancer-ridden Cheyenne warrior named Chief Yellow Hawk and his family back to his ancestral lands in Montana.
“He’s a butcher,” Blocker obstinately responds to his commanding officer upon receiving his orders.
“Then the two of you will get along just fine,” his superior responds.
Along the way, Blocker and his party encounter all manner of adversity, including an encounter with a frontier woman, Rosalie Quaid, portrayed by actress Rosamund Pike, whose husband and children had been brutally murdered by marauding Comanches.
And, predictably, over the course of time, Blocker is forced to reevaluate his raging hatred for his long-time nemesis, Chief Yellow Hawk.
There’s a lot that could be said about Hostiles, but I’ll confine my comments to the film’s treatment of faith – a welcome change in an era when Hollywood increasingly treats traditional faith with indifference, if not a discernible measure of contempt. Despite a lifetime of mayhem, suffering and death, Blocker has still managed to carve out a place for faith, albeit a rather confined and idiosyncratic one.
At one point in the film, Rosalie queries Blocker about his religious beliefs.
“Do you believe in the Lord, Joseph?” she asks.
“Yes, I do,” Blocker replies. “But he’s been blind to what’s going on out here for a long time.”
When occasionally asked about my own faith, I almost invariably borrow that famous response of German sociologist Max Weber. On the subject of religion, I’m unmusical.”
Yes, this could be regarded as a blessing or a curse, depending on one’s perspective. Yet, as one who spent an entire adolescence and a big chunk of adulthood trying to embrace religion, I’ve reached a point in life at which I’m entirely comfortable with my religious cynicism. It’s essentially enabled me to clear a cluttered mental deck that encumbered me for a long time.
Still, unlike many, if not most, nontheists, atheists and sundry other apostates, I accept religion for what it is: mental software that our forebears developed over eons to cope with all the a vicissitudes of life: the death of a child, romantic betrayal, divorce, sickness, dispossession, deceit, etc.
And I understand that unbelief is not for everyone. Like Captain Blocker, the vast majority of us need mental mechanisms to keep the furies at bay, to create an open space – a sacred space, if you will – to reflect on and to affirm all that is good, decent and sublime in life amid all the inevitable sorrow and suffering. Indeed, for the vast majority of people, spirituality and faith are as bound up in the human condition as eating, drinking, sleeping and lovemaking.
For these people – the majority of human beings – spirituality and faith are basic attributes of survival.
The tragic, squalid life of the fictitious Joseph Blocker serves up a very compelling reminder of that fact.