We go so long between great Westerns that it's a shock to the system when one arrives, let alone two at the same time. Enjoy the moment, pardner. Hostiles, opening in theaters Friday, and Godless, a seven-part miniseries streaming on Netflix, are bracing contributions to the genre. They tweak and advance the old mythologies. They blaze new trails, even as they borrow from their antecedents. (They also both have Dallas ties. Scoot McNairy plays a sight-impaired sheriff in Godless; Jonathan Majors is a battle-tested corporal in Hostiles).
Set in the late nineteenth century, right around the time the frontier was closing for business, Hostiles and Godless are also very much about the here and now.
Hostiles centers on Joseph Blocker, a storied army captain looking forward to retirement. Blocker, played with masterful subtlety by Christian Bale, has made his name killing Indians. He long ago came to hate them, as one does an enemy combatant, and so his final assignment sticks like a burr in his saddle: escort the terminally ill Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family from prison in New Mexico to their ancestral home in Montana.
The premise brings to mind Cheyenne Autumn, John Ford's 1964 Western about a cavalry officer (Richard Widmark) tasked to bring homeward-bound Cheyenne back to the reservation. But where Cheyenne Autumn is flabby and condescending (if well-intentioned), Hostiles cuts like a knife. It's a slow, bloody burn about what happens when two men trained for mutual hatred are forced to acknowledge each other as human beings. The film emerges as a bold psychological Western, on par with the best work of Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur, The Man From Laramie).
Blocker starts his journey as a variation on Ethan Edwards, the corrosively racist Indian hunter from Ford's The Searchers. He evolves into someone more rich, complex and empathetic.
Hostiles writer/director Scott Cooper thinks we could learn something from him.
"It's clear that our racial and cultural divide is getting wider by the day," Cooper says by phone. "It's no secret that we're living in very polarizing times as Americans. It seemed to me that as Christian Bale's character and Wes Studi's character progress from New Mexico to Montana, they gain a certain understanding. They begin to have less fear of the unknown. They become more inclusive."
Cooper took pains to cast Native American actors and bring in consultants, including Phillip Whiteman Jr., chief of the Northern Cheyenne Council. Cast members, including Bale, speak in the Cheyenne language, with subtitles. We've come a ways since Ford cast the German actor Henry Brandon as the Comanche chief in The Searchers, and an assortment of Italian and Mexican actors — Ricardo Montalban, Sal Mineo — in Cheyenne Autumn.
Where Hostiles is the latest film to redresses the function and depiction of Native Americans in the Western, Godless takes on the genre's traditional notion of gender roles. The New Mexico mining town of La Belle once looked like any other up-and-coming frontier community. That was before the mine collapsed and killed most of the town's men. The disaster has left many of the widows bereft. But others don't particularly mind their newfound sense of empowerment.
The main adversaries of Godless are Frank Griffin, an Old Testament, scorched-earth outlaw played by Jeff Daniels, and Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell), his surrogate son who robs the old man and breaks good after Griffin commits an atrocity too far. With Frank's motley posse in pursuit, Roy holes up on a farm in La Belle. It's a good choice, because that's where most of the miniseries' memorable characters reside.
Roy's host is Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), a widow twice over who lives with her Native American son (Samuel Marty) and mother-in-law (Tantoo Cardinal). Alice, the town pariah, knows what to do with a rifle. So does Mary Agnes (the terrific Merritt Wever), who wears her self-sufficiency like a fine Stetson. She's the one who balks when a new mining concern looks to take over the town, and she's the one who prepares the defense for the Griffin gang's inevitable arrival. She favors pants over dresses, and she's the best shot in town.
Godless, like Hostiles, has echoes in the Western genre. I kept thinking of Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray's color-drenched 1955 film that pits Joan Crawford against Mercedes McCambridge for control of an Arizona cattle town while most of the men, including Sterling Hayden, dwell on the periphery. Godless was in development well before the current #metoo moment, but it arrives right on time.
The most impressive thing about Hostiles and Godless? They feel both classical and modern, steeped in tradition but culturally woke. These aren't let's-all-hold-hands-and-feel-good projects. They're not genre mash-ups, like Cowboys and Aliens or Priest. They're big-boned stories with epic scope and majestic locales. They don't skimp on violence — scalping, lynching and all manner of shooting are on the menu. You could imagine Ford or Howard Hawkes making Hostiles if they were alive today. Godless plays like a Cormac McCarthy novel come to life. And yet they speak to the times in which they were made, not just the times in which they're set.
Cooper likes to quote a famous line from his friend Robert Duvall, who knows a thing or two about Westerns. "The English have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov," Duvall says. " But the Western is ours." As Cooper says: "It's so much a part of our mythology. It deals with a certain code of a way of life, of good overcoming evil."
The frontier may be closed, but the Western is currently alive and kicking. Long may it ride.