The upcoming release of the horror-western Bone Tomahawk has reminded me that, despite decades of so-called “revisionist westerns”, I have rarely seen one that was thoroughly critical of the western genre. Okay, maybe Django, but that had all the problems of a Tarantino film: it gets points for mocking Birth of A Nation and detourning The Searchers (and thus show-casing Tarantino’s awareness of film history, as usual), but it was not a very deep meditation on the settler ideology of the western. Television series such as Deadwood and Hell on Wheels, though possessing moments that demonstrate some critique of racism/settlerism and western expansion, still fall short of the mark – they generally fall on the side of “everyone is shitty and there’s no heroes” than unveiling the genocidal roots of western expansion. Indeed, Once Upon A Time In The West, one of the canonical revisionist westerns, already did a far better job of pushing this kind of “revisionist” view of cowboy triumphalism, and the rise of railroad industry, than, say, Hell On Wheels. Really, the only truly critical western that I can recall seeing is A Bullet For the General (written by Franco Solinas, who also wrote the screenplays for Battle for Algiers and Burn), which dealt with an agent of US imperialism being sent into Mexico to assassinate a peasant revolutionary – but this was limited to a critique of the frontiers era in Mexico rather than the landscape of US western expansion.
Although I have yet to see Bone Tomahawk, the trailer makes me suspect that this film will also fall short of the mark. To be fair, since I haven’t seen it, I can’t really justify these assertions, but from both the trailer and reviews I’ve read I doubt I’m going to be surprised to find a film that is more than a horror version of The Searchers, but one that tries to transcend the explicit racism of that film by reifying colonial violence. That is, the plot of Bone Tomahawk is something like this: a settler’s wife is abducted, four “cowboy” types go in search of the culprits under the assumption that they are “Indians”, the abducters are revealed to be sub-human murderers who actually are not part of any Indigenous nation (but some sort of “troglodyte” literal inhuman grouping of tusked monsters), as the wise Indigenous supporting characters have already warned. Hence the explicit racism of The Searchers narrative is offset by the revelation that the settlers aren’t really hunting natives, and maybe that they were stupidly racist to think so, but something else entirely.
Before thoroughly discussing what I take to be the problem with this narrative – i.e. that it doesn’t at all produce an actual critical revision to Western tropes but in fact sublimates them – I feel that it is worth examining as background, since I haven’t seen Bone Tomahawk, that this approach to The Searchers‘ narrative was already done in The Burrowers. Same frame tale, from what I can tell: people attacked and abducted, racist settler posse sets out to catch the Indigenous peoples they think responsible, a non-Indigenous primordial evil (one that also preys on Indigenous people) is encountered. Now, as a film in dialogue with The Searchers (which is the iconic racist western, in both its racism and its importance in cinematic history), The Burrowers was not without its merits. On the one hand it functioned to convict the settler protagonists with their racism – if they hadn’t been so convinced that they were hunting natives, and indeed brutalized an Indigenous person that could have helped them, they wouldn’t have ignored a host of signs that could helped them. On the other hand, there were moments of solidarity between the captured and beaten Indigenous character and a former slave. Still, as much as I found this film interesting (and indeed quite frightening), I still found its critical potential squandered for the same reason that makes me wonder about Bone Tomahawk, which feels like another take on the same proto-Searchers narrative. And it is because of The Burrowers, and my feelings after watching that film, that I found myself immediately suspicious of Bone Tomahawk.
Honestly, I think that connected the western genre with the horror genre could result in a truly critical western (or an anti-western, perhaps) and might in fact possess a lot of untapped potential. There is nothing more horrific, after all, than the actual historical facts of modern colonialism. As I noted in my review of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the horrific lies at the heart of US western expansion and it was notable that McCarthy emphasized this fact… His problem, of course, was that such a recognition would fall far short of an actual “revisionist western” since he ended up implying, in typical Hobbesian form (which is now part of a cynical reactionary understanding of history), that the natives were just as bad as the settlers, that all of the horror was part of some state of nature where humans are equally brutalizing other humans, and thus it makes no sense to complain about the horrors of colonialism when the colonized are equally vicious but simply “losers” in their viciousness. Even still, there were moments when McCarthy depicted settler violence that felt like revelations, an uncovering of a horror movie that lay at the heart of the founding of USAmerica, that could have been more critical had he embedded it within an anticolonial ethos.
Unfortunately, the horror approach to the western that is focused on a rearticulation of the Searchers narrative does not really succeed in foregrounding the horror of colonialism during US western expansionism (not that there wasn’t horror prior to this period in modern colonial history, only that the western genre is concerned with this period). This failure is due, in my opinion, to the fact that this Searchers narrative is morally loaded. That is, the problem with The Searchers is not simply its obvious racist affectations (i.e. John Wayne’s daughter was taken by Indigenous “savages” and turned into a “white squaw” because the colonized are essentially rapists and murderers who must be, as the logic of colonial superiority dictates, exterminated), but also its more pernicious ethical claim: that honest settlers are being harmed and abducted, that they are victims who would otherwise live and let live, and that the law of the frontier simply exists to protect “honest folk” (that is, colonial farmers) from being harmed. In The Searchers there is never any question that John Wayne’s character, and the people he represents, have done anything wrong: whatever violence they express is simply in reaction to a violation of their right to subsist upon the land.
Hence, as with The Searchers, films like The Burrowers receive their moral impetus from the abduction of innocent settlers. The reason why the settlers are there in the first place is not really interrogated (though, at least with The Burrowers, there is the occasional, but extremely ephemeral, glimmer of an understanding), the ethical function of the frontiers family is not examined. I am not arguing that every family engaged in western expansion was rabidly committed to Indigenous genocide and thus deserving abduction – as an historical materialist I’m less interested in what people imagined themselves to be than what their function was as part of a structural moment – only that this discourse of “abduction” is highly problematical. In the context of a push for US expansion, following a rejection of the qualifications of the Treaty of the Paris, what a particular settler family thought about its role in the nation is far less important than what the ruling class, and the ideology it promoted, recognized: that western expansion was indeed, as Theodor Roosevelt would later defend, a necessary violence in order to establish civilization against the “barbarism” of sub-human natives.
Hence, in this period, every family involved in the expansion was, regardless of how they thought of themselves, part of a settler garrison. Indeed, Sakai defined settlerism as a “garrison” mentality, and there is evidence that many of these frontiers families, would have indeed themselves as part of a civilizational garrison expanding against a state of nature (that included Indigenous peoples) that was resisting the right of civilization – the common sense ideology of the time would have guaranteed that this understanding was normative. Even still, if these families weren’t conscious of this ideology this doesn’t really matter: they were, regardless of how they conceptualized themselves, part of an intensified colonial putsch. So in this context, to treat them as the ground of moral action –the settler is abducted, all violence against the kidnappers is justified – obscures the prior ethical crime of colonialism. This is not to say, of course, that such abductions were common (this is yet another colonial trope that The Searchers normalizes) only that the discourse of settler abduction functions to obscure colonialism by creating a story where the settler, and not the native that the settler exists to displace, is the primary victim.
If movies like The Burrowers attempt to rectify this narrative by displacing the crime of abduction on kidnappers who are inhuman, all this does is reify the claim made by The Searchers: the settler still remains the primary victim, violation of Indigenous peoples is simply a mistake on the way to rectifying the original crime, and the barbarism attributed to natives is projected upon a mythical space. The supernatural entities in The Burrowers, known by native nations, are also hypostatized versions of native tribes: they are also indigenous, though supernaturally so, and the colonial hinterlands remain hostile to settler infiltration. Here we find a repression of colonial chauvinism, a sublimation of the colonizer-colonized contradiction, that is driven by the recognition that now it is morally wrong to characterize Indigenous people as kidnappers. So the problem is these “other” savages, which exist in a mythic space, and that still represent precisely what the racists of the 19th century said that Indigenous peoples were: inhuman monsters, demonic pagans. Does it really matter if this film works hard to demonstrate that the enemy is not Indigenous when it represents everything that Indigenous people were said to be by common sense ideology in the period of westward US expansion? And in this context, the abducted settlers are still the basis upon which moral practice rests: the entire film is motivated by their innocence, by the violation represented in abduction, and that this abduction is immediately understood (though wrongly) as performed by the colonized.
Which is why I have little faith in Bone Tomahawk to correct the mistakes of The Burrowers, especially since it feels both derivative and less aware of itself within the genre. According to the reviews, an Indigenous person appears rather early in the film to inform the protagonist searchers that they are ignorant “pale-faces” [yes, this is the term used, a stereotypical way of speaking] for assuming that the enemy is “indian” – as if this enough to off-set the allegiance to the Searchers narrative… in fact, it seems designed to function as a defense mechanism: see we’re not racist even if we’re drawing on a racist narrative! Here, the problem is not that the true enemy of the colonizer is some savage other – the real savage that threatened the colonizer, a monster that only masqueraded as Indigenous – but that the colonizer itself is the monstrous other, the alien presence upon the landscape that typified western expansion. Any horror-western that is capable of actually drawing on the authentic horror of that period, and upsetting the narrative of mainstream westerns, must locate its horror in the figure of the settler rather than a variant of the native… For this was the literal horror of history, the axis upon which genocide was accomplished, and to proclaim otherwise is to align oneself with horror itself, to proclaim a rejection of ethics altogether.
All of this is to say that there needs to revitalization of the western genre that is properly critical of this genre’s conceits rather than concentrating on a few symptoms, repeating certain narratives that are in themselves problematic. An actual “revisionist western” must begin with the fact of colonial genocide and slave-based settlement, especially according to the attitudes of this context in the nineteenth century where the traditional western is supposed to take place, and seek to intentionally disrupt the ideological intersections in which particular colonial narratives locate their existence. It is not enough to detourne The Searchers, which might be incapable (after at least two tries) of being detourned; the task is to produce a western that begins with the horror of colonization.