Before superhero movies, the Western was the go-to cinematic archetype for action filmmakers keen to employ its problematic tropes in the service of some supposedly noble message.
The Old West all but disappeared from the silver screen as Hollywood became sensitive to the perceived racism and misogyny inherent in the genre, but the last quarter-century has seen a revival of more enlightened cowboy movies.
American filmmaker Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart," "Black Mass") is the latest to attempt the "progressive western" with "Hostiles," a blood-drenched exploration of white America's origins he hopes will resonate today.
"When I set out to make the film I knew there was a racial and cultural divide in America," Cooper told AFP ahead of a recent screening at the American Film Institute's AFI Fest in Hollywood.
"I just didn't realize it was as wide as it is, and growing wider by the day."
"Hostiles" dispenses with the whiskey-swigging prospectors, buxom, feathered bar girls and -- to some extent -- bloodthirsty savages of "Stagecoach," "The Plainsman," "Geronimo" and "Apache Uprising."
Instead it follows "Dances with Wolves," "The Last of the Mohicans" and, more recently, "Django Unchained" and "Brokeback Mountain" in telling stories from a non-white, non-heterosexual or non-male perspective.
The movie follows a bigoted veteran cavalry officer (Christian Bale) who reluctantly obeys orders to escort a dying captive Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to his tribal grasslands in Montana in 1892.
- 'Journey of the soul' -
Setting out from an army outpost in New Mexico, the former enemies encounter a deeply traumatized young widow (Rosamund Pike) whose husband, baby and two daughters have been slaughtered in a Comanche attack.
The three are forced to band together to overcome the punishing landscape and the Comanche bandits on their tail during a 1,500-mile trek across the perilous American frontier.
"For me really it was about two disparate men with very different world views who come together over the course of the narrative to offer one another a bit of reconciliation and hope. God knows, we need that in America now," Cooper told AFP.
"I hope, if anything, it sparks a conversation about how we all need to come together and understand each other a bit better and the story is truly a journey of the soul for the characters."
Studi, best known for his roles as ruthless Native American warriors in such films as "Dances with Wolves" (1990) and "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992), is Cherokee, and -- like Bale -- had to learn some Cheyenne for the part.
He accepts that he is seen as something of a representative of the native experience, but it is not a responsibility he sees as his primary concern.
"It really doesn't enter into it in terms of whenever I'm on set and there's a call for action. Then I'm not representing anybody or anything other than my character," he told AFP.
Q'orianka Kilcher -- another American star with indigenous roots -- plays Studi's daughter-in-law in "Hostiles," a violent two-hour watch described by IndieWire as one of the most brutal Westerns ever made.
- 'Stoic sages' -
The shoot itself was no walk in the park, said 27-year-old Kilcher, who descends from the Peruvian Quechua and Huachipaeri people and played Pocahontas alongside Bale in Terrence Malick's "The New World" (2005).
Two weeks of "cowboy camp" was followed by filming at six locations in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, battling rattlesnakes and the elements.
"In the world we live in today, with all the politics and everything that's happening, I think it's really important as human beings to start to see that we're all in this together," Kilcher, also a human rights campaigner who advocates for indigenous people, told AFP.
Not all critics, however, have been convinced about the movie's progressive bona fides, with several pointing out that the white actors get all the best lines and complex characterization.
The point is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, in a story about fractious white-native relations in the American West, it is English actors Bale and Pike who are attracting all the early Oscar buzz.
Variety reviewer Peter Debruge accused "Hostiles" of treating its native characters as little more than one-dimensional "abstract plot devices" depicted as "ruthless savages or as stoic sages."
Critics have also called out the movie for drawing a false equivalence between individual native attacks such as the Comanche ambush in the prologue and government-sanctioned genocide.
Cooper, however, insists he went to great lengths to understand the "language, customs and mores" of his native characters, employing Cheyenne cultural advisors to ensure he got it right.
"It was very important for me to represent Native American life in an extremely authentic but dignified manner," he told AFP.
"Hostiles" hits US theaters on December 22.