The famous film critic Rex Reed said that he was not bored by Bone Tomahawk. The film lasts 2 hours and 12 minutes and at times it is protracted. To maximise profits and exposure Bone Tomahawk has been marketed as a horror western. The horror, if it exists, consists of three elements. These are the suggestion of the supernatural that occurs for over half the film, the discovery of troglodyte Native Americans who are cannibals and look a little like zombies, and the extreme and graphic violence. The eventual explanation for the events that happen is not supernatural, the troglodytes have bizarre manners but are live humans and the extreme violence is consistent with primitive warfare.
The Western is a genre that has elegance, something to do with the beauty of horses and the photographic appeal of landscape. On modern sound systems the hooves of the horses also make a pleasant noise. Westerns are watchable and have atmosphere. Bone Tomahawk is the same although the ambitions of the film are modest. The dialogue is poetical and in a style similar to what we once heard from the great John Wayne and others in True Grit. In that film the dialogue reflected the oral tradition of a religious community. In Bone Tomahawk the dialogue is a consequence of design and no more than style, or poetry if you wish. At its best the dialogue has rhythm. It suggests another time and freshens up familiar scenes and encounters. The problem with poetry, though, is maintaining the damned thing. There are times when the dialogue is lame, instructional, redundant or anachronistic. There are also conversational diversions from the main narrative. These are intended to be amusing but the humour is weak. These scenes and moments do not dominate the film but they do mar and they could have been avoided.
Despite not being bored Rex Reed described Bone Tomahawk as ‘another existential western and failed Tarantino’. This statement is incorrect. Existentialism was a response to the decline in religion. Humans made machines and invented technology. The human race assumed that it had mastered the world and creation, and after that it did not need God. We all know the famous quote by Nietzsche who made his name by identifying what was happening. Quentin Tarantino is a nihilist who thinks violence is amusing. In his imagination nihilism triumphs and there is artistic glory. The winners and those in the cinema who support them have a lot of fun watching the losers suffer. Bone Tomahawk has a Christian message that denies existential doubt, and the nihilism in the film is not a cause for celebration. It is a warning against what happens when Christian civilisation does not prevail.
A Christian lobby exists in Hollywood. It has money and can afford to finance expensive movies. Sometimes members of this lobby recruit actors, screenwriters and directors. On other occasions they are more modest and agree to finance a film providing it is amended to contain a Christian message. These modern Christians do not insist upon cinematic restraint and censorship. Indeed genre films that have a Christian message often subvert a traditional genre. The Missing, also a western, was based on a novel by a born again Christian. In The Missing the main character is played by Cate Blanchett, and the audience is introduced to her when she is in the middle of a bowel movement. The Passion Of Christ, which was made by Mel Gibson, also challenged the tradition of religious epics. No desire was shown by the financiers to control the excess of Gibson, and the film had extreme violence and gore. The film was popular with middle-aged churchgoers.
No one other than the producers will know if Bone Tomahawk was financed by the Christian lobby but it looks as if it should have been. In both The Missing and Bone Tomahawk innocent people and not just villains are sacrificed. Those with Christian faith survive. For many Christianity is associated with self-effacement, democracy, community and compassion for the weak and unfortunate. This is not the brand of Christianity that informs The Missing and Bone Tomahawk. In these two westerns Christian faith enables isolated individuals to overcome danger and triumph against impossible odds. Christian faith helps the strong and determined to become exceptional heroes. Those who have left wing politics fear that this is not Christian advocacy but a fascist creed justified by a self-righteous assumption of divine attention. Those who are neither paranoid nor left wing argue these films merely express how individualism played an important part in American history. Either way we should be wary. Bone Tomahawk has a sex scene, graphic violence, a pleasant black character and criticism of how white people behaved towards Native Americans but nobody should be fooled. Whether it is inspired by faith in a divinity or nostalgia for times when people were obliged to be self-reliant the ideas behind Bone Tomahawk are no more than simple-minded conservatism.
The man of faith who prevails at the end of the film has a damaged leg and walks with a crutch. Heroism is important to the western but his absurd heroics make the film implausible. He drags his leg around a hostile landscape, and the pace of the film is dragged with him. The improbable triumph of an ordinary man, or in the case of The Missing a woman, is necessary to the Christian message. Faith is transformative. For the same reason the savages in the two films are perceived as omnipotent. The situation has to be extreme for faith to be tested. Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott understood what happened to idealists and dreamers in the Wild West. Ruthless and materialistic white men kill and rob the dreamers. Hope does not facilitate success in a Boetticher western. It is a burden that prevents measured thinking and survival.
Apart from the horses and landscape the Western has icons, more than any other genre. Most are familiar to any cinema goer and they include the handgun and holster, the hat, saloons, the livery stables, the Native Americans, stagecoaches, campfires, gamblers, sheriffs, saloon girls, dusty streets, boardwalks, buffalo, the cavalry, rough whisky, horses, wagon trains and so on. The list is endless. Not all the icons are present in Bone Tomahawk but there is much that is familiar. The film may have been given interesting twists but the roots are obvious. Bone Tomahawk has a disillusioned saloon pianist, an anxious wife of a law enforcer, a drunken town doctor and a scene where a man talks to the gravestone of the woman he loved. Brooder, a man obsessed with killing Indians, is educated and well dressed. He continues the tradition unwittingly established by Doc Holliday. The similarity between Brooder and the upper class gambler in the great Stagecoach is stressed rather than avoided. Even more obvious is Chicory the ageing deputy. He is limited and dependent on Sheriff Hunt and, like the Walter Brennan character in the Howard Hawks classic, Rio Bravos, talkative. The Walter Brennan type character is important in a conservative western. This stock chatterbox arrived in the cinema as soon as sound did and he could open his mouth. Today the presence of the loyal but limited assistant justifies the loyalty to hierarchy that is attractive to committed Christians who have enough money to finance films. The comic sidekick may be important to the narrative outcome and even be a valued member of the team that succeeds but he also exists to remind us that we are not all equal and that the heroes are superior and exceptional. Humour and tolerance are acceptable but deference is still important.
The symbolism of the surnames Hunt and Brooder is not subtle. The saloon in the town is called The Learned Goat. This may be a comment on too much reliance on knowledge and gratification although no one should place bets on that one. The Learned Goat indeed.
Bone Tomahawk has two elements that make the film worthwhile. These are the photography and the performance of Kurt Russell. The cameraman uses splendid long shots and ambitious deep composition. The night-time gunfight by the campfire, which we watch from a distance, is a reminder of how films looked before TV and the influence of Spielberg. Kurt Russell plays Sheriff Hunt. Russell made his debut as a child when he kicked the shin of Elvis Presley. Later Russell played Elvis in a biography of the singer. The meeting had made Russell a fan. Age has turned him into a grizzled veteran who resembles Walter Huston in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. The resemblance may have inspired this performance. Russell has many fine moments and is believable in the difficult scene near the end of the film. Russell has also appeared in some stinkers but he was great as Wyatt Earp and he rescues Bone Tomahawk. Two great performances in Westerns may not sound like much but it is two more in the genre than the talented actor Jeff Bridges managed. His performance in the remake of True Grit is overshadowed by the authenticity that Russell brings to the part of Sheriff Hunt.
The stone that is thrown away at the end of the film is ambiguous. It may refer to the death of a character or it may mean that Christian piety and faith will always leave a path for others to follow. No doubt there will be another western with a Christian message in the future. If it has horses, interesting landscape, rhythmic dialogue most of the time, great long shot photography and a performance comparable to that of Russell, I will, like Rex Reed, buy a ticket. The Devil does have some good tunes but so does his enemies.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.