Cannes: Tommy Lee Jones Defends Portraying Native Americans as Bad Guys in 'The Homesman'

Associated Press
Tommy Lee Jones during "The Homesman" press conference on May 18.

The actor-director, who stars opposite Hilary Swank in the Western drama, talked gender politics and “American imperialism” in a charged press conference.

CANNES -- Tommy Lee Jones has “no concerns” that his new film The Homesman, debuting in the Cannes Film Festival competition, presents Native Americans as the bad guys. The actor-turned-director met with the press following the movie’s first screening on May 18. 

Set during the mid-19th century western expansion of the United States, the film tells the story of religious homesteader Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank, who hires "homesman" George Briggs (Jones) to help her transport three mentally-ill women away from their hardscrabble lives on the frontier back East to the care of a minister’s wife in Iowa. 

Along the way, they confront a Pawnee raiding party, setting up a tense confrontation.

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Jones said the band of native tribesman used in the film were all descendants of the Cahokia tribe, famed for being horsemen. They claimed to be expert riders, he continued, “but not one of them could ride one side of a horse but they looked like Pawnees.”

But he added, “I am not ashamed of the fact that they are considered by our characters to be potentially homicidal. We are not bending the truth at all or stereotyping anybody. That’s the last thing we wanted to do.”

Jones, speaking in his characteristically blunt style, said he also is exploring the female condition in the movie, aiming to link it to the way women are treated today.

“I don’t think there’s a woman in this room that has never felt objectified or trivialized because of her gender. There’s a reason for that, there’s a history of that and I think that’s an interesting thing,” he said.

A smattering of applause followed but just when the room seemed to relax, Jones’ gritty responses to questions continued.

He made no bones of the fact that his film was about "American imperialism" across the continent, saying, "I won't try to hide the fact that a consideration of American imperialism on the west side of the Mississippi river is the film's underlying theme."

He added: "[The film] is a consideration of the history of western expansion; a way of looking at what the schoolchildren of America learn when the subject of Manifest Destiny comes up."

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Manifest Destiny was the doctrine held by European settlers in the U.S. who believed they had a natural, divine right to move West and occupy the land, resulting in long-running conflict with Native Americans and large-scale alterations to the natural landscape.

The Homesman marks Jones' fourth credit as director and his second feature film, following his debut feature at Cannes, 2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which won him the best actor award and best screenplay honors for Guillermo Arriaga.

Jones bristled slightly when the questioners used the word genre, and referred to the film as a Western.

The Homesman was developed with backing from French indie giant EuropaCorp, headed by fellow filmmaker and producer on the film, Luc Besson. American producers Peter Brant and Brian Kennedy then stepped in to provide the bulk of the financing.

Michael Fitzgerald, who first suggested to Jones that he adapt Glendon Swarthout’s novel said: "We would never have got this picture made in [the Hollywood] system. If we hadn't gone to Luc Besson we would not be here. Simple as that.”