The Settlers

Film Review: "The Settlers"
In 1893, a Spanish businessman and industrialist in Chile decided to expand his territory and become a titan in this new nation. The only thing standing in the way of his glory was a population of native people who had been living there for generations and generations. To reassert his claim on the land, he sent three men, Segundo, a Chilean Mestizo, MacLennan, an English army captain, and Bill, a Texan cowboy, on a journey through the treacherous territory of Patagonia to “clean” it of its population, the Ona. In The Settlers, Chilean director, Felipe Gálvez Haberle takes his audience on this journey filled with majestic landscapes and imminent disaster. One of two major Chilean films this year that re-examine key moments in the country’s history alongside Pablo Larrain’s, El Condor, The Settlers is a shining example of just why revisionist Westerns are so impactful and important.

Settler Violence. Whereas most other Westerns about the foundation of a nation through territorial expansion may depict the leaders of this assault as heroes akin to John Wayne or Gary Cooper, Gálvez Haberle demystifies the glory of this national fabrication. These are not virtuous and honorable men with a vision for a future, but mere mercenaries with an unquenchable and unreasonable thirst for violence. In fact, Gálvez Haberle chooses to focus more on their own catfights and ego-fueled contests rather than the massacre. With a cast of actors who can say more with their fists than with their words, the audience is given a deconstructed image of the John Wayne figure as who he really was: an unstable, emasculated wanderer in need of validation through any means necessary. What use would there be in showing the same images of the white man’s fight against the native population? Even if depicted sympathetically, it would only bring up the same emotions, stereotypes, and myths.

Our Complicity. Just as the mercenaries conclude their journey and are about to embark on a massacre, the film cuts to a few years in the future, away from the rugged landscapes of Patagonia and into the quiet and elegant mansion owned by Menendez. In effect, the most violent event of this period was not the killing but the story that was told afterward. The role of government agents and later even filmmakers in propagating the lie of the savage and/or codependent natives has been propped up time and again. By omitting the climactic and, oftentimes, balletic violence of most films of its kind, we take out the romance and see the bleak reality.

Though not easy to watch, The Settlers is an epic story that rewrites the rules of the Western. Its power can be summed up in one scene. When meeting a group of Argentine soldiers, the three mercenaries gaze up at the monumental Andes mountains that the native populations have called home for centuries and lament that they thought it would be more grand. While European artillery may have won the war, anyone with a brain can see that the majesty of this natural image holds all the power.