Christian Bale has made a Western before, the 2007 "3:10 to Yuma" remake, as well as ridden horses in a number of films. He's been riding in fact ever since age 11 when a neighbor in Portugal let him take her steeds down to the beach.
"So I'm very comfortable on horses, although my technique might be questionable," the 43-year-old English actor says with a grin.
What Bale liked about his new Western "Hostiles," which comes out Friday, was that there's no comfort to it.
Specifically set in 1892, the film -- scripted and directed by Scott Cooper, who previously put Bale through numerous rigors in the rural crime drama "Out of the Furnace" -- digs deep into the emotional as well as physical damage wrought by the winning of the just-about-closed frontier.
Bale plays a veteran Indian fighter, Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker, tasked with the most distasteful assignment of his career. He's ordered to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi of "Dances with Wolves" and "Last of the Mohicans"), and his family from a New Mexico military prison to his homeland in Montana.
It's a politically driven ploy -- now that it's won the West, Washington wants to look like compassionate conquerors -- that Blocker has lost too many comrades to stomach. But orders are orders, and along the 1,000-mile trail north he must learn how to respect his charges if any of them are to survive.
Because, despite what they might think in D.C., law and order hasn't entirely been imposed. Comanche renegades, rapist trappers and much more racist members of Blocker's own army are still running violently wild.
"It's this journey of a man who's trying to unlearn hatred," says the Dark Knight Batman, almost unrecognizable with a shaved head and 40 extra pounds he put on to play ex-vice president Dick Cheney in Adam McKay's just-completed biopic "Backseat." "He's trying to unlearn a natural response to fight at all times, and trying to become human again.
"I don't believe he's a natural bigot at all," Bale says of Blocker. "The way I attempted to portray him is that he has had to create that bigotry. He knows that Manifest Destiny really means land grab. He's a smart man but he's a leader, and he cannot express himself for fear that everything will fall apart."
Bale notes that Blocker's suppressed emotions get expressed through other characters, especially the widowed settler Rosalie Quaid, played by "Gone Girl's" Rosamund Pike, his company rescues along the way. Her grief over unimaginably traumatic loss is bone-shaking.
"He knows that he's been enacting genocide," Bale points out. "But that doesn't nullify the pain he feels. What it causes is incredible guilt at even the very slimmest of ideas of him starting to give up the hatred. It's the guilt of, will that render his brothers-in-arms' deaths meaningless?"
Bale is well known for extensive commitment to his roles. Beside the recent Cheney weight gain, he also packed on pounds for another chameleon job in "American Hustle" and went in the other direction to play a gaunt insomniac in "The Machinist" and his Oscar-winning turn as a crack-addicted ex-boxer in "The Fighter."
For "Hostiles," Bale studied the Cheyenne language under consultant Chief Phillip Whiteman. There was much more to it than that, however.
"The Northern Cheyenne leader who became our adviser and taught me the language wouldn't teach me any of it until he taught me the culture first," Bale reports. "It really helped to add so much substance to the story and to Blocker."
Shot in remote parts of Colorado and New Mexico, "Hostiles" was a trying experience. Which Bale -- who first came to international attention when he starred, at 13, as a World War II prison camp internee in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" -- typically thrived on.
"That helped it," he chirps. "And we shot it chronologically, so you can actually see us getting skinnier because we were in these woolen uniforms and sweating like crazy in the summer heat. But Scott was always very adamant that we understand the pace of life at that time and the lack of self-awareness at that time -- and that violence, when it does come, it comes suddenly, it comes out of nowhere, it's intensely savage and brutal. No glorification, no swashbuckling nature, and then it's gone and silence, you're left with just the tragedy of what's occurred. I think that makes the violence in 'Hostiles' seem so much more terrible than what you've witnessed in other Westerns."
All that's behind him now. But when he watches "Hostiles," Bale sees more than just a Western. He sees a film that most uncomfortably reflects horrors loose in the world today.
"The film became something that was not only fascinating and obsessing to me, but it becomes tragically relevant more and more every day," Bale observes. "Both during and since filming, in terms of divisiveness, hatred, seeing the refugee crisis and people's attitudes towards that, in seeing the treatment of women. We're at a cultural, global shifting point.
"I think this is a very particularly American film," Bale, who along with England and Portugal spent a lot of his childhood in the U.S., says. "I am obsessed with America, as it's my adopted home and my children speak with American accents. But even though 'Hostiles' is a particularly American film, I think that it's globally understood. There are parallels in every country around the world." ___
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