A forgettable gory Western, Bone Tomahawk, was guilty of some of the major horror tropes regarding race. First, the young, black stablehand is cannon fodder, whose death means nothing but the movement of plot. This is the only African-American in the film, that I could tell. Second, the Native Americans are so alien and unknowable as to be literally monsters. The main characters openly discuss the number of Indians they’ve killed. While on their journey across a standard Western landscape, two Mexicans approach the camp in the night and are summarily executed. There is a religious subtext, as well, wherein the character that survives the whole affair is constantly praying. The monstrous troglodytes emerge from the valley of starving men because some murderous bandits kicked over rocks at a site sacred to the monsters.
Let’s set aside the horror tropes and talk about cannibalism. It happened. It was part of the cultures of North America. It still happens in parts of the world remote from modern theories of germs and disease. Let us first begin by letting that concept go. The divide between what is food and what is disgusting is inextricably linked to the identification of groups and cultures. Let us begin by placing that concept aside. The actions of the tribe appear monstrous, just as Grendel appears monstrous, just as fire ants appear monstrous. But, white men came to the country and decimated native populations. Should they not fight back? Should they not defend their sacred places? Much of the drama of the film revolves around the good people caught in the crossfire of the vengeance of the sacred. The unwitting good people caught up in the fight are going to die.
This is the race war, idea, though. This is the manifest destiny at the heart of the genre of the western. The unknowable place full of savagery and terror is laid down by the gun of the good, white man. The town is protected against the wild. The railroad runs through, and will always come through whether by force of might and banditry, or by love and desire. And, in every Western I’ve seen, the different races are kept apart from each other, pushed against each other, played off as representatives of the idea of their own cultures and ways of life. Even among the best-intentioned Westerns, it’s hard to escape the specter of the larger world in the time. The white man was coming. The black man was under his heel. The Hispanic man was a foreign world, an Other, that was to be pushed away from decent Americans, or a race of ignorant children to be protected by decent Americans. The red man was a monster and was to be feared and fought and never trusted. The best of the savages could, perhaps, integrate into the town, but never keep their own way of life. The idea of the west is, at heart, a race war where a whole continent was placed under the heel of the white American, and all other cultures and ways of life are pushed down and away.
Even the best Westerns, the smartest and bravest and most interesting, walk across this face of history. The town is the place of order and civilization, and it is a place of Whiteness. The wilderness is the place of danger and the unknown. It is the place of the native Americans, who were, actually, as civilized in their way as any European-style township. The heart of the genre carries a race war. What do we do about it? What do we write about it? What do we make movies about it?