Bone Tomahawk: Cannibals, Cowboys, And…Crane?

boneWhen I started, one of my first decisions was to avoid reviewing current titles. That’s what I thought the fine folks at, say, Bloody Disgusting and Dread Central were for (and precisely why I love them so).

Then Bone Tomahawk came along and with it an onslaught of reviews that were all over the spectrum. Initially it was one of my “probably interesting but nothing I’m champing at the bit to see” movies. But with all the wildly mixed opinions, I thought, “Ok. Let’s see what all the hoo-hah is about.”

I liked it fine. I like Kurt Russell in just about anything. But it occurred to me that nobody was talking about Bone Tomahawk in terms of one especially interesting connection (okay it’s interesting to me as an academic type).

Switch hostile terrain and cannibals for the ocean, and with a fair dose of gore, S. Craig Zahler essentially retells Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.”

What follows will be a spoiler bonanza. There are no apologies for that since a) Bone Tomahawk has been out a minute, and b) if you haven’t read “The Open Boat” by now, shame on you.

Briefly, four men survive a shipwreck in “The Open Boat.” There’s the correspondent, the captain, the ship’s cook, and Billie, the oiler. Billie is by far the most fit. They abandon a leaky boat and attempt to swim to shore.

Let’s draw some parallels. You might think Sherriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) would be the captain. In the story, however, the captain is wounded and morose having lost his ship. The movie counterpart has to be the foreman, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), injured falling from a roof and morose over losing work.

Hunt, it would seem, ends up being more like the correspondent: distant, stoic, and controlled. But stick with me. That’s gonna change.

Hunt’s amusingly befuddled deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins), echoes Crane’s cook. Rounding out this band is John Brooder (Matthew Fox), unlikeable but savvy, skilled, experienced, and the most able to handle himself in a bad situation. This makes him the oiler.

Okay. So I won’t summarize the events of either story other than to say the four men go off in search of O’Dwyer’s wife. As in “The Open Boat,” the big question is, “Who survives?”

cigarThe shock of Crane’s story is the death of the strong, fit oiler. Equally, the first casualty of our band of rescuers is Brooder. I know I should have seen that coming. I didn’t. In my defense, you mention dynamite in a Western, I go all cigars and Clint Eastwood.

So how do the rest shake out? In “The Open Boat,” it’s the correspondent, the cook, and the captain. In Bone Tomahawk, that should leave Hunt (correspondent), Chicory (cook), and O’Dwyer (captain).

Not what happens.

I know. “How does this hold up if Hunt dies?” Well, what’s important is actually who replaces him. Ultimately, surviving this “open boat” ordeal requires getting out of the cave. In “The Open Boat,” the survivors are the injured, the unfit, and the intellectual.

Who survives Bone Tomahawk? The injured O’Dwyer, the unfit Chicory, and the intellectual, O’Dwyer’s wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons), far and away the single most intelligent person in the film. She’s been in the correspondent position all along.

Where, then, does Hunt fit in? One suggestion is to look at Crane’s oiler. The only named character, the robust Billie almost towers as a physical presence. Maybe a bit of a reach, but it’s arguable that Hunt and Brooder represent the same thing: the gunman. As such, they’re mentally and physically best equipped to survive.

Finally, nature. Nature can’t be reasoned, bargained, or negotiated with. You don’t have to go very far into it before you move down significantly on the food chain. The ancient Greeks knew this. So did the Medievals. And the Romantic poets. And the writers of Naturalism, like Crane.

In other words, nature doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you, if you’re stuck in the ocean/desert/tundra/jungle, or if you therefore stand a better than average chance of dying. Throw in some cannibals to represent violence, taboo, and the brutishness hidden in all of us (all central themes in Naturalism).

Suddenly I’m thinking about my literature students. Huh.

5 thoughts on “Bone Tomahawk: Cannibals, Cowboys, And…Crane?

  1. Heh. Haven’t seen this or read the book noted, but I get to do so at some point thanks to that fine analysis above. I’m old and spoilers don’t bug me thanks to the older “see for yerself” mantra I consume entertainment by.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Well, Charles Schulz spoiled Citizen Kane for me long before I saw that film and I’m used to hearing or overhearing today’s chatty folks on phones giving away stuff as they stroll around after screenings when I get to attend them. Lots of growing to the point of ducking tree branches.

        Liked by 1 person

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