‘Horizon,’ Kevin Costner’s Epic Western, is More About Mythologizing Old Tropes Than Engaging Hard Truths

Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner, seen here in 'Horizon', grew up idolizing stars of Hollywood Westerns like John Wayne. Photo: © Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection/The Canadian Press

When watching a John Wayne movie as a child, Kevin Costner’s father told the would-be Hollywood star that he could grow up to be just like The Duke. Costner, 69, would chase that very legacy throughout his career. 

He’s played stoic cowboys in movies and TV, from 1985’s Silverado to the neo-western series Yellowstone, and even directed a couple tales on the frontier himself including his Oscar-winning masterpiece Dances With Wolves. Costner’s latest western, Horizon: An American Saga, is his most ambitious stab at manifesting his dad’s words yet.

Horizon is Costner’s monumental “How The West Was Won”-style epic, a four-part movie about romantic gunslingers, determined settlers and the Indigenous communities that might interfere with their plans for colonization. The first movie, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to thunderous applause, opens in theatres June 28, with the second following August 16.

Costner, as spry as ever, wields a six-shooter to play Hayes Ellison, a weary traveller whose brows tell you he’s seen some action. He entertains a chivalrous romance with a damsel in distress (Abbey Lee, a great rascally foil for Costner’s whispery manners) and engages in a thrillingly executed macho-coded stand-off against a serpent tongued gunslinger (Jamie Campbell Bower). These are moments that fondly recall genre favourites while staying detached enough from historical stakes that they’re easy to enjoy.

Costner only appears in Horizon’s first chapter for a fraction of the time. We’ll have to wait for later instalments to see how his story will intersect with the remaining ensemble playing opportunistic settlers, union soldiers and the Apache communities. 

A forward-looking epilogue, featuring scenes from the next chapter, gives good indication that Horizon is basically the most Kevin Costner Western that Kevin Costner could tell; an accumulation of so much that he’s done leading up to this point.

 

Costner has always been the devilishly handsome and soft-spoken thirst trap (at whatever age) whose inviting face romanticizes old-fashioned American myths and values. His most iconic movies have pitched America’s favourite past time as a religious experience (Bull Durham and Field of Dreams) or celebrated good ol’ boy American heroism, as when he played Elliot Ness in The Untouchables or a former secret service agent in The Bodyguard opposite the late Whitney Houston.

But the genre that Costner keeps returning to is the Western, whether playing gunslingers in Wyatt Earp and Open Range or revitalizing cowboy aesthetics in Yellowstone. In fact, Costner’s dramatic departure from Taylor Sheridan’s hard-bitten series is said to revolve around his eagerness to make Horizon. And then, of course, there’s Dances with Wolves, Costner’s sweeping and sentimental take on the Western, in which the filmmaker told the story of America’s violent colonization of the West as a white saviour narrative.

Costner played a Union soldier living among the Sioux, falling in love with their ways while dreading the inevitability of more settlers to come. For that he took home the Oscars for Best Picture and Director, a victory that has gone down in history as one of the Academy’s greatest flubs, because Dances defeated Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Goodfellas in that competition.

New generations are less likely to embrace the Western tropes Costner was revitalizing in Dances; especially now that there’s demand for Indigenous creators to tell their own stories and deconstruct the very old-fashioned tropes Costner tends to reinforce. With Horizon, Costner’s take on the Western has only evolved in the most superficial ways, while also regressing elsewhere.

HORIZON
(L to R) Abbey Lee as Marigold and Kevin Costner as Hayes Ellison in New Line Cinema’s Western drama Horizon: An American Saga Chapter One. Photo: Richard Foreman / Warner Bros.

 

This is the year of Beyonce’s Cowboy Carter, a reclamation of Black people’s place in Country and Western spaces, platforming talents like Rhiannon Giddens and Shaboozey as artists who have as much claim to the dusters and chaps as Costner. Horizon actually features a handful of Black men and women in smaller roles, at least acknowledging their presence in a genre that traditionally ignores the fact that historically one in four cowboys were Black.

The presence Indigenous communities occupy in Horizon, on the other hand, is even more off-putting than in Dances. At least in the earlier film, the Sioux led by Canadian-born First Nations actor Graham Greene’s Kicking Bird were fully dimensional characters, despite existing in the white man’s imposing shadow. In Horizon’s first chapter, Indigenous characters exist only in relation to the white characters, as either threats or victims tugging at our sympathies.

In a spectacular and thrillingly executed early sequence, Apaches raid a settler camp. The violence is unsettling, especially in its portrayal of murdered women and children by hatchet or arrow. Though Horizon acknowledges the reciprocal (or rather instigating) violence committed by white settlers, those instances are never depicted as intensely. And as he did with Dances, Costner stages scenes in Horizon where honourable men disavow the savage violence, pegging it on the bad apples on both sides of the colonial divide. That’s Costner’s way of offering sympathy for the sins of the past.

At the Cannes press conference, Costner indicated that the Indigenous characters will have more presence in later chapters. He then added: “I don’t feel the need to try to balance the story. A lot of people talked about Dances with Wolves as being a Native American story and I said ‘no it’s not.’ It’s a story about a cavalry man that went out to the West. The difference was the people that he ran up against, I tried to make look like people … I couldn’t begin to actually be the person that sets the record straight for Native Americans or African-Americans. I just try to make it as real as I can.”

Fair enough. But making it “real” is a peculiar sentiment since so much of Costner’s Westerns are built on the symbolic codes in John Ford and Howard Hawks’ mythologizing.

Costner props up the valour of the American adventurer who gets to keep posing stoically in the sunset while warily shaking their head at the colonization to come; like they’re not part of the problem. And that colonization in Costner’s work is always treated as inevitable, as if the Americans were simply destined to be on this land just as surely as he was meant to fill John Wayne’s boots. Retroactively treating the frontier as the direction in which we were always headed is a slick way to absolve individual settlers of making the decision – then and now – to benefit from genocide.

“There’s no army of this Earth that are going to stop those wagons coming,” says a Union army captain played by Danny Huston in Horizon, recycling a sentiment that Costner’s characters have uttered in Yellowstone and Dances. 

It’s an expression of defeat; one that Costner romanticizes, over and over again.

Horizon premieres in theatres on June 28.

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