1892.  The last vestiges of the Old West.  The natives have all but disappeared;  squeezed out by the encroaching white man's settlements, wiped out by fights with the U.S. Cavalry, and consigned to “Indian” reservations, usually in unwanted scrub land far from familiar territory.  It's a sad tale of conquest and displacement, but of course there are plenty of stories of persecution and perfidy on both sides.

            We begin with a frontier family being slaughtered by a marauding band of Comanches.  The only one who survives is the Mom, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), but only because she hid.  Her husband and children were killed, and their house burned down.

            Meanwhile, at a nearby fort, a grizzled Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), ready to retire, is given one last set of orders by his Colonel:  escort a notorious Cheyenne chief, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back to Montana Territory, where he came from, so he can die there.  Yellow Hawk had been imprisoned for years, but now is old and sick with cancer, and President Benjamin Harrison has ordered that his request for a burial site be granted.

            But Captain Blocker does not want to accept these orders.  All he knows is that Chief Yellow Hawk was directly responsible for the deaths of many soldiers under Blocker's command.  He even tries to recite the name of these soldiers to his Colonel, convinced that this would earn him some reprieve from this dangerous and onorous duty.  But in the end, it's obey the direct order, or get court-martialed and lose your pension besides.

            So, very reluctantly, Captain Blocker leads the ragtag expedition westward.  It seems Chief Yellow Hawk has an entourage, his son and daughter and daughter-in-law and grandson.  And the widow Rosalie has no place else to go.  And sure enough, they get raided by the same party of renegade Comanches, with casualties on both sides.

            Passing through a Colorado fort, Captain Blocker is given yet another unwanted assignment:  escort a prisoner who is charged with a hanging offense:  desertion.  It turns out that Captain Blocker has shared battle experience with the prisoner, who tries to claim that everyone's guilty of something, so what not just let him go?

            Yes, the mortal enemy lines get blurred in this distinctive Western epic.  The rugged countryside looks as pristeen as it must have been 125 years ago.  Chief Yellow Hawk rightly points out that they could do a lot more good with protecting the group if their hands weren't shackled.  And then there are the rogue miners who kidnap the women while they're washing the dinner dishes by the creek.

            It's a time of self-reliance, and a certain moral ambivalence about further oppressing the natives. The characters are as stark as the scenery.  Life is brutal and short.  Medical help is all but unheard of. And hygienic facilities simply aren't available in the wilderness. 

            But the cinematic trek through the genuine part of The Old West will capture the imagination of the campfire storyteller.  Even if it is hard to find a “happily ever after.”


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association