Films about colonialism and settlers overtaking Western land are often in Western movies, and they most often come up with white protagonists who side with the oppressed Indigenous people, and they combat against the oppressors. We have come a long way with Indigenous representation in cinema and how settlers are depicted. It’s an improvement from the days of John Ford’s Stagecoach, where Native Americans were depicted as villains attacking “innocent” cowboys. Reflecting back, we have seen Native Americans played by Burt Lancaster, Burt Reynolds, Anthony Quinn, and even Elvis Presley. Reflecting back, much progress has been made, but there is still much work to do with the medium. My goodness, Johnny Depp was cast as Tonto in The Lone Ranger for not too long, and even Killers of the Flower Moon, as masterful as that film is, could have benefited even more from an Indigenous co-writer.
Most often, so many indigenous characters over the years are either depicted as magical, sympathetic, and righteous or just oppressed. Now, more and more allies to indigenous people have emerged since the 70s with filmmakers like Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon), Arthur Penn (Little Big Man), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man), Kevin Costner (Dances with Waves), and Terrence Malick (The New World) to name have proven to be great allies, showing the injustices and cruelty of colonialism and settlers, but those films are often dominated by white protagonists where many of the indigenous characters are left either sidelined or cast as supporting characters.
Courtesy of Mubi
In the debut feature written and directed by Felipe Gálvez Haberle, this Chillian hard-knuckle film revisits familiar terrain in this revisionist Western about theSelk’nam genocide, which was a brutal genocide that systematic exterminated the Selk’nam or Ona people, which was one of three indigenous tribes located in the Tierra del Fuego in South America, from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, was led by British, European, Argentine, and Chilean settlers.
This is a film of moral relativity, but it’s bleak, uncompromising, and doesn’t let go of its systematic truths about such brutality. For so long, history has been whitewashed and denied due to egocentrism and hierarchy. Even words like “settle” appear minor, as we often think of it as “settling” land, which seems cozy, when in reality most of these land exchanges were hostile, viscous, and murderous. The film is called “The Settlers” for a reason, and Haberle utilizes a rich historical perspective on the land of Tierra del Fuego (Spanish: “Land of Fire”), which is a peninsula located in the far southern part of Argentina, where the other half consists of Chile. The film isn’t so much a historical period piece, and it’s not even combative about the brutality of the past. It’s more observational and transportive in approach, which only intensifies the visceral experience.
The film begins in the Patagonian regional landscapes, and we see a hotheaded British red coat retired lieutenant named Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley) immediately shooting and killing a worker who lost an arm while building a fence. Nobody protests the act. It’s absolutely terrifying, and Segundo (Camilio Aranciba), a mixed-Chilian who continues to shovel along with his co-workers that work as if they are enslaved counterparts, it’s eventually revealed that he works under a business tycoon, the real-life oligarch Jose Menendez (Alfredo Castro), and Alexander continues to use his military experience and might to seize more property so he can survey them for Menendez’s business dealings. He treats the Chillian workers as if they were in the military. Anyone who gets harmed on the job or isn’t up to production uses his military might. Alexander uses an American, Bill (Benjamin Westfall), as his right-hand man, and Segundo is used just to communicate with other fellow Chillian citizens to get more work along their journey. Segundo is, in fact, very reticent toward Bill and Alexander, out of fear of getting hurt.
For MacLennan, the journey is a sadistic one where he weaponizes his masculinity as he gets in arm wrestling matches that turn into fist fights, and he uses other forms of aggression against both whites and the indigenous Selk’nam people. There is something very Herzogian in the way MacLennan’s depravity is depicted, and like Herzog, Haberle explores the primitive side of human nature. He ends up pressuring Segundo and Bill to join his ruthless acts, or else they will be at his mercy for disobedience.
The Settlers is very visceral in its exploration of how brutal settlers were at that time. There is no compromise, no whitewashing, and no hope to be found. It examines just how nihilistic the settlers of that region were, and it’s difficult to watch. Haberle does examine what violence does to the soul and consciousness that lifts nihilism into a state of moralizing. Even when the depravity winds down in the empty desert scenes, we feel the psychological toll that it brings to the men. The film eventually gravitates to an epilogue with a passage of time in an office in a luxurious room where the characters discuss the chaos that occurred on the land beforehand. While the themes are certainly on-the-nose, but it’s a fresh reminder of how societies, nations, and humanity must reckon with their ruinous past and original sins if humankind wants to progress collectively.
The Settlers is now playing in limited theaters.