Hot Take: the movie Hostiles, starring Christian Bale, is a love story.
One wouldn’t think this gritty, modern western would be a love story, given that it’s rife with suffering and violence. But it is precisely because of its real and raw depiction of lived human experience that it is a love story in the truest sense.
Hostiles is the story of stoic American soldier Joseph (played by Christian Bale) who has one last mission forced upon him before retirement: escorting a former enemy, an Indian chief, safely back to his homeland of Montana. Along the way, he rescues Rosalie (played by Rosamund Pike), a distraught woman who witnessed the brutal murder of her family by a rival Indian tribe. Left with no husband and children, friends or family, she is all alone out West.
It’s classic and simple in nature: the man in uniform on his horse rescues the damsel in distress. He, a gentleman toward her, is the only man she feels safe to continue her journey with. She, a lady in his company, brings out the better angel of his nature. But it’s not just that they’re thrown together in a fated circumstance that makes it a love story. It’s that they both gaze in the same direction: outward toward God amidst their suffering.
There’s a scene in the film where Christian Bale’s character is grieving the loss of a dear friend, a loss that feels in some ways like a final blow, given all the trauma that he’s experienced in nearly two decades of war. He is sitting in a field looking out at the horizon, feeling abandoned, wondering where God could be in all this pain. Rosalie sits beside him, gazing outward herself, and comforts him with the reminder that “We’ll never get used to the Lord’s rough ways, Joseph.”
She goes on to say, “Sometimes I envy the finality of death, the certainty—and I have to drive those thoughts away when I’m weak.”
It was in that moment, both characters gazing outward—in a sense, toward their end—that I was reminded of another pair. In Karol Wojtyla’s play The Jeweler’s Shop (a story about three intertwined couples that’s infused with Wojtyla’s philosophy from Love and Responsibility), Andrew asks Teresa to marry him, but it’s the way he does so that’s so striking:
He said it looking ahead, as if afraid
to read it in my eyes, and at the same time as if to signify
that in front of us was a road whose end could not be seen
—there was, or at least, could be,
if I replied “Yes” to his question…
The outward gaze displayed in both these stories symbolizes a sharing in the same journey or end and the displacement of one’s own ego.
In Hostiles we see one journey end (with the death of Rosalie’s family) and collide with another (Joseph’s last mission to freedom), which ultimately forms a new destination and gives each character a purpose (to survive, protect, and serve another) as a way to escape themselves.
In The Jeweler’s Shop we see the proposal as evidence of the same end in sight for Andrew and Teresa, but there’s also a passage that draws from Andrew’s admitted past problem with infatuation, most especially having never truly escaped his ego with other girls:
I simply resisted sensation and the appeal of the senses,
for I knew that otherwise I would never really leave my “ego”
and reach for the other person—but that meant an effort.
For my senses fed at every step
on the charms of the women I met.
When once or twice I tried following them,
I met solitary islands.
This made me think that beauty accessible to the senses
can be a difficult gift or a dangerous one;
I met people led by it to hurt others—and so, gradually, I learned to value beauty
accessible to the mind, that is to say, truth.
I decided then to seek a woman who would be indeed my real “alter ego.”
Consider the outward gaze in contrast with the inward, and then assess the implications of that direction in the context of human relationships. In the twentieth century, two opposing philosophers took two opposing views on love.
Jean-Paul Sartre (a man of Marxism) proposed that one must turn and look inward—that your life is about you. But being consumed with oneself only makes one despair. The loneliness and void drives one to want to fill up the emptiness with another. But because this is a grasping desire for love (insomuch as the feeling), it does not give but only takes. This leads to the use of another human person.
We see this in a myriad of ways in modern society: no-fault divorce; pre/extra-marital sex; contraceptive sex; abortion; an entitlement to marriage; an entitlement to children; and to an extent, the soulmate myth (as originated by Plato).
Pope St. John Paul the Great proposed an alternative: that one must turn and look outward and be filled with wonder—that your life is about giving yourself away as a gift in service to the one whom you find wonderful.
St. Thomas Aquinas said love was to will the good of another. We see a depiction of almost this very definition in the final scene of Hostiles. Rosalie says to Joseph, “Whatever may come, I want the best for you.” In her willing his good, she invites him to choose to love and give himself away, this time not in service to his country and fellow soldiers, but in service to love.
[Image Credit: Hostiles (Entertainment Studios)]