From a lecture series where this film was mentioned, I had a vague idea of the severity of this movie but couldn’t quite remember the full item. I knew that it was brutal and I knew that it was a very important piece of a rash of new Westerns that appeared in the 1970s — a leap away from the glorification of the West, using it as a metaphor for American activity in Vietnam.
I had expected something much more polarizing, a movie that could basically be summarized as “white man bad, other man good” and that’s the end of it. What this movie gives is much more complex and, naturally, much more compelling. The narrative could have easily followed members of the native tribe, portraying them as plenty of “sympathetic” films have: kind, peaceful people of the earth, preyed upon by the vicious white man. I assume films of this vein are meant to be caring to their subject, maybe even massage some white guilt, but by showing a race of people in such a bland, two dimensional way, is insulting to the complexities that thrive within any group of human beings.
I’ve known too may white folk who want to apologize for all that their race has done to all others, with the attitude that they’re the foulest group who’ve ever treked the earth. It’s important to be aware of injustice committed, and nonsensical to reason ancestors out of various guilts, but it is pompous and ignorant to treat other races as if they are too simple to do cruel things. There’s plenty of hate to go around. What makes white crimes particularly sharp is that they’re the race on top at present and one that, whether in sympathy or denial, fails to grasp the full meaning of current advantages, and what it means for humans as a whole. They’re also a group that has fought under hypocritical banners of democracy, equality, freedom, and so on, which make the philosophical implications particularly heinous.
By having the narrative focus on Cresta, a woman already out of step with white mores and is then kidnapped by a native tribe, and Honus, a devoted young cavalryman, we can see the complexity of the conflict in clarified terms. Cresta is able to speak plainly, in terms the dominant viewing culture can understand, about the foul actions of the U.S. troops, while Honus can be an extension of the average citizen, trying to reconcile reality, myth, and his own hopes and dreams.
The climax of this film is terrifying. What takes it beyond shock and gore is a handling that steps away from a plain anti-American thrashing, and plunges into a simple human truth: warfare, greed, hate, and a thousand other names, lead good people into deplorable madness. There is no excusable reasoning for what these men did, nothing comes close, but these are human failings, not racial or nationalist ones. To overcome atrocities, we have to take the argument beyond these divisions and boundaries, into what really causes them: blinding hatred, born of one thing or another, arguably justified or not, that dehumanizes the opponent therefore making them easier to destroy. We have to keep the humanity in our human behavior if there is any hope for progress, and the fact that that makes it harder to kill and torture our “opponent” is a difficult thing for combat, but a very, very good thing for the state of our souls.