Right on, cowboy! A review of the film 'Cowboys and Aliens'

IssueNovember 2011
Review by Milan Rai

The history of the cowboy film is shameful. There are a few exceptions, but taken as a whole, the genre is one long glorification of the conquest and extermination of the indigenous peoples of North America.

One exception was Dances with wolves (1990, directed by and starring Kevin Costner), which is highly sympathetic to Native Americans. The film cost $18m to make, took $424m at the box office worldwide, and won the Oscar for best picture.

Flash forward to 2011, and a new politically-correct western: Cowboys and Aliens. (Spoilers ahead, by the way.) The hero of the film, Jake Lonergan, is played by Daniel Craig, the left-leaning James Bond (whose 2008 film Quantum of Solace referenced the Bolivian people’s successful struggle against water privatisation). In the first minutes of Cowboys and Aliens, Lonergan/Craig kills three white bounty hunters who have scalps hanging from their saddles, an interesting statement of intent for the film.

The most interesting character in the film is colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, a racist, brutal, tyrannical white cattle baron played by Harrison Ford, who despite his prejudices teams up with a group of Chiricahua Apache, who have also had relatives abducted by the aliens (“the Castle”), and with a band of white robbers who have previously stolen from Dolarhyde himself.

There are explosions and extraordinary CGI stunts and solid performances from grizzled professionals, as one would expect from a summer blockbuster.

As with Dances with wolves, the white man is central. Dolarhyde leads the Apaches into battle, despite their superiority in guerrilla warfare; Lonergan assaults the Castle base, despite being partnered with a presumably-much-more-powerful alien sidekick.

Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the new film has not matched the financial success of the Kevin Costner vehicle, with a budget of $163m and worldwide takings to date of only $171m. Not shameful, but a little embarrassing.