I have reviewed from a geopolitical perspective on this blog numerous books, at least one television show, one gaming setting, and, superficially, an entire trend of movie subgenres which as ‘The Post’ shows clearly has not gone away. But I have yet to do a review for a specific film. Well, a good one anyway. It’s time to change that. ‘Hostiles’ has earned the right to be the first. This will not really be a conventional film review of course, but more the political theory take on the movie. My personal opinion is that the film is amazing, a type of ‘Apocalypse Now’ western were the journey is more important than the destination and many conventional tropes and tackled in an unconventional way. The basic synopsis is that a woman whose family was murdered by Comanche horse thieves finds her path overlapping with a US Army mission to take a dying Cheyenne chief back to his birthplace across the country from New Mexico to Montana for public relations purposes. Along the way in the chaotic end to the frontier era this state mission meets many of the still existing non-state actors, usually with violent outcomes.
Also, Wes Studi, who played Magua in Last of the Mohicans, is the chief. As if you needed any more reason to see it.
While the message of former enemies coming together to fight new threats is hardly novel, especially in the Western genre, this movie does it particularly well. In a setting of wide open and barely populated spaces transitioning from free roaming cultures to increased property speculation and control, crime and raiding are rife. State authority is weak to nonexistent and a state of war in an officially pacified west can still persist in some places. As the Cheyenne, who are technically still US Army prisoners, must be freed to help fight the Comanche and then others as the story unfolds, formerly embittered battlefield rivals come to rely on each other to survive-and this very struggle for survival creates a new, and extremely strong alliance.
What we have in the movie is a situation of the Hobbesian state of ‘war of all against all’ which prevails outside of an internally organized society. International Relations scholars might also refer to this as similar to the ‘state of anarchy’ which reigns in foreign policy as there exist few checks on powerful states on the world-wide level. What we see in ‘Hostiles’ is this situation in microcosm which much smaller bands of people to give it a more personal touch. The very tag line of the film: ‘We are all Hostiles’ basically tells the general tone.
What becomes interesting is how the distinctions of Cheyenne and United States gradually fade to be replaced with that of the band itself. Kept together at first by necessity, the former rivals have effectively left past distinctions behind and became their own ‘tribe’, against any that threaten it. This is similar to how so many settlers from different, and often hostile, nations in Europe would eventually become early Americans (as well as Latin Americans). It also has echoes of various steppe nomad confederations in Eurasia who quite literally constructed many an ethnic group that would found new states based off of nothing but mutual enemies and a shared horseback lifestyle. The Metis culture in western Canada too was an amalgamation of French trappers and Algonquian Indians which became its own thing, as was the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy which was formed of previously warring tribes for the purpose of creating security in upstate New York and to make those tribes more capable at projecting their power outwards at other rivals. Before the threat of assimilation into Russian society appeared there was no such thing as a pan-Siberian native sentiment, but then there was one. One that in the 19th Century even included many settlers in that territory. There were also many multi-ethnic enclaves of pirates in the West Indies and the southern Indian Ocean in the age of piracy on the high seas, united only by being outcasts and renegades who would go own to develop a rogue culture of their own. Spartacus’ revolt also comes to mind, as do the early Cossacks around the Black Sea.
We may even be seeing something similar happening today in Syria. Though Syria was always regarded by the vast majority of its citizens as a sovereign and legitimate nation, the ties of loyalty between minorities and anti-salafist sunni facing a foreign backed coalition of fundamentalists and sectarians have probably only strengthened the ties of loyalty and really fostered a sense of Syrian-ness like nothing in modern history ever has before. Hence why attempts to stir up a sectarian war to bog down Iran in total state collapse in Syria have so far failed. Planners in Riyadh saw Sunni vs Shia and Alawite, but in trying to exacerbate those divisions they made sure they were really battling Syrians themselves.
Ibn Khaldun was called this ‘Assabiyya’ and I have certainly spoken of it before in other contexts. It’s the group-solidarity that many a successful new society is built on, and many an ageing society loses before its collapse.
In a world where ‘we are all hostiles’ it is worth noting that those people who fall outside of and in between major established divisions in preexisting society must band together in order to survive, and, as ever the realist that I am, the alliances may be surprising and more often than not dictated upon circumstance than any real values. The old paradigms largely become irrelevant as they are overtaken by events as it is. In the end, every society came from nowhere, after all, and will in the future be replaced by those yet to exist. Bonds of personal loyalty not of kin but of shared experience forge the links of new orders when older ones break down.
Nothing fits this more than the point in the film when the band, no having given up all pretense of being official and hierarchical, ends up in a shootout with some Ron/Rand Paul type property guardians over trespassing. At this point an American army captain is shooting at people on their own property and they are shooting at him despite the federal legality of his presence there. But what came to matter there, in the middle of nowhere and far from the institutions that set these events in motion, was the immediate group and not the official and distant loyalties.
In a time where people of all stripes are losing faith in institutions of all kinds all around the world, this is worth thinking about and appreciating as shown on the small scale in the film ‘Hostiles.’
Anyway, have a Lakota song translated into English: