Christian Bale is becoming a student of history, with a special interest in history that repeats itself.
After last year’s Armenian Genocide drama, The Promise, his new Western, Hostiles, marks the actor’s second consecutive film that deals with the systematic oppression of and violence against a specific culture. Bale reteamed with his Out of the Furnace director, Scott Cooper, to play Capt. Joseph J. Blocker, a U.S. Army captain with deep-seated anti-Native American feelings tasked with transporting a Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family through treacherous frontier land in 1892.
In a Facebook Live interview with Yahoo Entertainment while promoting The Promise, the actor talked at length about how the treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire — and the media’s responsibility in exposing it — mirrored current events. With the powerful and profound Hostiles, however, the topicality of the story as it relates to contemporary race relations in the U.S. snuck up on him.
“I was stunned, sadly, by the relevance that arrived during filming and since filming in terms of the division and hatred of the other and how to solve that,” Bale, 43, told Yahoo Entertainment at the film’s Los Angeles press day, where he was joined by Phillip Whiteman Jr., his Cheyenne tribal adviser on the film. “That craziness that is happening not just in America but globally. We’ve been here before. This has happened in the past. There is another way. But it’s tricky. How do you turn off hate? And there’s no one who has fought harder than Blocker as we see in his journey to return to humanity and become somebody who can actually not be a danger to those around him.
“But that surprised us. We didn’t realize that was becoming so important in the news cycle after making this film.”
Written by Cooper based on a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart, Hostiles is also the rare film to depict the American West in a time of social transformation when the mistreatment of Native Americans was becoming a more commonly debated topic. One especially memorable scene in the film depicts a heated discussion over the dinner table that feels like it could just as easily be about the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2018.
“We didn’t generally see that in Westerns, because it was always the good guys against the bad guys,” Bale said. “But there were reports after Wounded Knee [the massacre of more than 150 Lakota people in 1890], there were telegrams sent by generals just appalled at what had happened. Shamed, guilt-ridden. These conflicts were always there, they just haven’t been shown or represented on film that much.”
During production, Bale became particularly close with Whiteman Jr., who trained him to speak the Cheyenne language and gave the cast and crew blessings every morning. “It really built unity and a sense of community in what we were doing,” he said.
It all added up to one of the most rewarding experiences of the Oscar winner’s career. “I’ve been making films for 30 years,” he said. “This is one of the most special I’ve done, and the proudest I’ve been.”
Hostiles is now playing nationwide.