“Hallmark” Meets Hostiles in this Well-intentioned Western



New to Blu-ray, the modest-means Western adventure Hostile Territory (2022) might be best described as a grown-up movie for adults that gravitate towards branded “family fare.”  Filmmaker Brian Presley seems to slot into this category, taking the notion of “family movie” to an altogether different level by casting much his own family in it.  He himself takes the lead, the role of Jack Calgrove, a Union officer and former Confederate POW thrust into a desperate cross-country search for his displaced children.  

Amid continuously vibrant daytime cinematography that makes the most of the purple mountain’s majesties and rolling fruited plains along the “Oregon Trail”, both traveling parties encounter deadly Native Americans (while aided by Union-aiding friendly ones), injustice for former Black slaves, and several key interactions with orphaned children.  Which brings us to an unfortunate disconnect at the heart of Hostile Territory…

It’s pretty darn obvious that Presley was deeply interested in the Orphan Train movement that emerged in the aftermath of the Civil War.  (In fact, a quick online search for the film reveals that the title at one time was in fact “The Orphan Train”).  In a time before children were systemically protected the way that they are now, these traveling passanger trains full of kids orphaned by the war roamed the country in order to find them new homes.  In the film, the Orphan Trains are again and again brought up, mentioned, explained, and finally depicted.  It honestly feels as though this lesser-known historical detail was the impetus for the film but found itself shuffled to the side in favor of the more conventional ticking-clock Western survival story- aspects of which tend not to land all that well.

While fully watchable, it must be said that various parts of Hostile Territory fail to coalesce.  The saccharine niceness of certain characters (the most glaring being Brad Leland as the Orphan Train guy, as well as Cooper North as Jack’s oldest son who must adopt his siblings following his own service in the war) spills into glad-handed artifice.  None of “good people” seem even capable of doing anything at all wrong.  When you’re telling a story that touts historical authenticity, that’s an issue.  Only Calgrove himself has any capacity for “going dark”.

Hostile Territory has a certain tension about it, and not always in the right way.  Disturbing violence ramps up around the two-thirds point, a jarring too-little too-late swerve into dangerous “realities”.  That the violence is perpetrated by feared Native Americans who are responsible for the movie’s dull thud of a title is all the more unbalancing.  On the flip side, certain characters’ heavy-handed Fred Rogers-esque kindness demonstrated in such difficult, uneasy times feels too overt and even tone deaf in terms of any contemporary analogies in talking about the Civil War today.  While the depictions of the overwhelmingly Caucasian characters portrayed earnestly as do-gooders is positively aspirational, it also can’t help but come off as inadvertently patronizing.  It’s, at the very least, momentarily cringy.  The film’s tendency to lapse into militaristic metaphors (referring to common people as “God’s soldiers” and whatnot) sure doesn’t help.

Thankfully, around Presley’s own glassy-eyed and driven performance, supporting players Craig Tate (as a fellow freed Union prisoner) and Natalie Whittle (as an African American mother in search of her own lost daughter) do much to bring Hostile Territory grounded stoicism and desperation, respectively.  It’s not enough to save the film, but this sort of thing no doubt looks quite good on an acting resume.  Not to mention anyone’s reel.  It should be reiterated just how nicely, traditionally shot this film is.

Well Go USA’s Blu-ray edition of Hostile Territory does a fine job of representing this uneven film’s moments of visual spendor.  (Near the end, portions look as though they might’ve been filmed in a park clearing).  There’s a brief “making of” featurette that is more clunky and self-aggrandizing than informative.  That is the only notable bonus feature on the disc.

For those in search of a newer Western, Hostile Territory may provide some subject matter that often doesn’t grace the genre.   Well Go’s Blu-ray edition can bring it home for good.