The Settlers: Review

The Settlers: Review

The Settlers: Review. By Alif Majeed.

Very late in The Settlers, a character says, “Wool stained with blood loses its value”, which appears as a powerful statement about colonialism. It says a lot about how nations or history often become glorious when the victims who endured the violence to get there have to be swept under the rug to get there. 

Felipe Gálvez Haberle makes an impressive debut with The Settlers transporting you to late 19th century Chile to depict a part of their history that has been erased. The violence against the indigenous people, Onas, now known as the Selknam genocide, takes center stage here. The circumstances that led to the tragic massacre have their roots in European colonialism and the urgent need for people to stake claims of ownership by quickly grabbing land. One such person is José Menéndez, a real-life figure who has hired three horsemen, Alexander MacLennan, a British soldier accompanied by Bill, an American mercenary, and Segundo, a Chilean mestizo or a mixed-race person to help him do so.



The Settlers is a movie where the cinematography often looks like it could trump everything else. We are at the end of the earth is the general way in which the characters describe their situation and cinematographer Simone D’Arcangelo shoots the movie. Like an empty sweeping vast of beautiful nothingness which is as good as any revisionist Western has looked like. Take the scene through the swamp where the misty fog clouds the cries of horrors of nameless, faceless people the mercenaries are picking off. They have shot Chile in all its glory and it looks gorgeous, which makes it sadder because of the violence that unfolds on screen. 

The three actors portraying the perpetrators of the violence take center stage without ever trying to upstage each other. Benjamin Westfall, as Bill the American, may be distrustful of the other two. Especially the “Half-Indian, Half-White” Segundo, but he knows he needs to be careful with MacLennan and doesn’t dare antagonize him. At least more than required while treating Segundo like dirt because he knows the latter cannot fight back. Camilo Arancibia plays Segundo as the point of view character with unsettling dignity. The horrors he is witnessing haunt him, but because of his place in the food chain, he can do nothing but remain a mute participant in the proceedings. His monologue in the climax about a massacre he was involved in is an illustration of this. We can vividly imagine what happened without the need to depict it on-screen. 

It is strange then that they chose Alexander MacLennan, played by Mark Stanley, to portray the character illustrating the savagery inflicted upon the Onas. Much of the depiction of the violence revolves around him, both on-screen when he takes part in the brutality or offscreen, where others are describing what he has done or his role in the various parts of the genocide. All that comes to a full circle when he meets a group of English mercenaries whose leader shows him who is the top dog and MacLennan’s status quo to him. The violence meted out to him is supposed to be satisfying but can come across as odd in its placement. 

In the end, The Settlers is also about the world and people’s place in it with its order. How everyone is always inevitably answerable to someone greater and more powerful up the order. How men we thought were in complete control can just be lap dogs with bosses who own them. Segundo, who is frequently reminded of his mixed race by his fellow horsemen, is considered to be only slightly better off than the people he is working to dispatch. While Bill treads with caution with MacLennan, the latter is answerable to his boss, who sent him to “clear” the land for the glory and prosperity of the country. The time shift in the end also depicts how the boss may not own the land and might be just a gatekeeper of it for the government whose representative, in a thinly veiled threat, politely reminds him they can easily take it away. 

The underlying subtext remains the same. Whether it is with direct, brutal violence or polite niceties over tea or alcohol, people have to be shown, or reminded, of who is boss. 


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