The Settlers, Felipe Gálvez Haberle
Photo Courtesy of Organic Publicity

The Settlers’ Blood-Chilling Journey into Humankind’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

Chilean revisionist Western, The Settlers, is a powerful film whose director shows admirable moral integrity that’s often absent in film history.

The Settlers
Felipe Gálvez Haberle
9 October 2023 (BFI London Film Festival)

Westerns are always based around trying to build a hero and as a cinematic form its propagandist. It’s a way for the new countries in the America’s to demonstrate that they’re civilised, based on the construction of masculine heroic characters.

– Felipe Gálvez Haberle

Chilean director Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s debut feature, The Settlers, possesses a strong ‘art house’ vibe. Muting the emphasis on entertainment, his revisionist Western strikes up the metaphorical image of a journey into humanity’s ‘heart of darkness.’ It’s the type of film one doesn’t enjoy but appreciates for its aesthetic and narrative artistry. 

The Settlers, subverts the traditional image associated with the Western. Tierra Del Fuego, an archipelago on the southernmost tip of South America, with its grasslands and forest, rain and mist, isn’t the dry yellow ground upon which gunfighters, sheriffs, their deputies and outlaws spilled blood in the creation of the American myth. The Settlers reminds us that the Western might be a North American genre, but it’s a theme that translates beyond its borders. 

Beginning in 1901, The Settlers‘ story is told across four chapters. Landowner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro) entrusts Lieutenant MacLennan (Mark Stanley), formerly of the British army, with a task. “I want you to find a route to the Atlantic for my sheep. A safe and quick route, Lieutenant. For this, you will have to clean the island.” Menéndez is based on the real-life Spanish businessman who was complicit in the genocide of the Selk’nam tribe and whose orders MacLennan acted under to “solve” the indigenous “problem”.

To accompany him, MacLennan chooses one of Menendez’s workers, the mixed-race Segundo (Camilo Aranbicia) – a decent guide and a good shot. MacLennan is instructed to also take along American Billy (Benjamin Westfall), whom Menéndez has brought down from Mexico. He can apparently sniff out an Indian miles away. 

Early on, the story revolves around the trio’s interpersonal dynamic. Billy disagrees with MacLennan’s decision to bring Segundo along, distrusting the half-breed. “You’re white, and he’s not. Our differences are set in stone,” he tells the Lieutenant. Segundo is positioned as the sympathetic character who the audience should fear for. The tension between MacLennan and Billy is palpable. Each man represents an existential challenge to the other’s pride. “There are many things said about you, but I haven’t seen anything yet,” MacLennan tells Billy. “Yeah, well… They ain’t say a damn thing about you,” he replies. 

Beneath this tension are men building their own myths, but unlike the American Western, this isn’t told against the backdrop of a mythological heartland. Instead, The Settlers has an eeriness that recalls Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 adaptation, Apocalypse Now – the sullen journey and the renegade Colonel Martin (Sam Spruell) they encounter in the third chapter, “El Fin Del Mundo” (“The Ends of the Earth”). 

Gálvez Haberle exposes his masculine heroic characters’ vanity and MacLennan’s foolish whim. He utilises the dark landscape with little sunlight to express the existential despair of the white man’s expansion. The sparse landscape complements the stripped-back narrative. Gálvez isn’t only interested in telling a story, he wants the film to be a sensory experience. He achieves this through the film’s rich soundscape, emphasising what the audience hears. 

“I built up the soundscape from the ground up – the horses, the voices, and the sounds in the environment. I didn’t use any direct sounds,” says Gálvez Haberle during our in-person conversation at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival, where the film screened in the Journey strand. “I was working with the imagery, and I had the realisation that music could change the film […] I used that insight to help me realise the sound could become the protagonist.”

In the massacre of an Indian camp, the camera mostly remains with Segundo. We see him fire his gun, and we hear MacLennan and Billy’s weapons discharge, but we only see the aftermath of the violence. In The Settlers‘ final chapter, “El Chancho Colorado” (“The Red Pig”), Gálvez Haberle expands on this approach by appropriating oral storytelling traditions to narrate MacLennan’s genocidal violence.

Gálvez Haberle subverts the traditional masculine heroic characters and instead constructs cowardly, immoral, and serpent-like versions of masculinity. MacLennan and Billy’s tactical manoeuvre to circle an Indian camp at night, and wait until dawn to strike, is hardly a courageous act. They rape one of the women that survives, and MacLennan tries to force Segundo to rape her too, but he quietly kills her. A compassionate yet violent act, it adds complexity to Segundo’s conflicted soul, whose survival instincts made him complicit in the earlier violence. In comparison, MacLennan and Billy are one-dimensional, for violence fuels their sense of power and self-importance. 

The Settlers‘ final chapter jumps forward seven years to Menéndez’s home in Punta Arenas. He and his wife, Josefina (Adriana Stuven), host Marcial Vicuña (Marcelo Alonso), who represents President Montt. “Our goal is the creation of a new nation, made by Chileans, Settlers, and Indians,” says Vicuña. “Together, we must build this beautiful country. For this, peace is necessary.” He offers the first glimpse of hope in a film that provokes despair, a moral voice that challenges Menéndez and his wife’s treatment of the natives. Vicuña’s deception is momentary, and he quickly begins his efforts to whitewash and rewrite history. 

“In the Western you’re always playing with this expectation the audience has that there will be a hero, that someone will come out on top,” says Gálvez Haberle. “I played with that expectation, trying to lead the audience into thinking that Vicuña could be the hero. […] I then bring him crashing down – dethroning him.”

Gálvez Haberle is at his most “playful”, if you will, in the final act, offering a damning critique of Vicuña’s contradictions and hypocrisy. He treats creating Chile as a sales pitch, with truth dictated by commerce. He’s a political spin doctor whose moral righteousness is propped up by self-deceit. “I know you’re very proud of your achievements, but we, as children of this young and noble motherland, must take care of the optics. We are interested in aesthetics,” Vicuña tells Menéndez. “Wool stained with blood loses all value.” 

From his introduction as a moral voice, he quickly emphasises the inequality of accountability or scapegoating and how truth and history are narrative devices that can be written. At his worst, Vicuña represents the violence and abuse perpetrated against the natives by the political establishment’s attempts to “civilise” indigenous peoples. Like Truth and History, indigenous cultures can also be redefined. 

He tells Segunda that he and his colleagues want to report these dreadful crimes, but to do justice to Segunda’s account, they need to capture his image – not a still photograph, but a moving image. Vicuña has Segunda and his wife Rosa pose, drinking from teacups, but when she resists, Vicuña sternly gives her an ultimatum: “Rosa, do you want to be part of this nation?” 

Gálvez Haberle’s harsh revisionist Western possesses a rare integrity. Sergio Leone’s muted romantic gaze on the American West in his Spaghetti Westerns still romanticised or glorified masculine heroics, despite his characters having the moniker of “antiheroes”. 

“We as filmmakers have also been complicit in this silence around, and the hiding of, and the distorting of, these pages of Chilean history over the last 100 years,” says Gálvez Haberle. He’s indirectly speaking out against, among others, John FordHoward Hawks, and Sergio Leone, who have constructed masculine heroic characters to demonstrate America’s civility or the genre’s propagandist agenda.

Gálvez Haberle’s The Settlers will hit a raw nerve with viewers living in countries formed by colonial powers. Watching The Settlers is a powerful experience whose filmmaker shows an admirable moral integrity, largely absent in film history. It compels an ongoing conversation that reveals the themes and ideas hidden in the folds of its many layers. 

The Settlers screened in the Journey strand of the 67th BFI London Film Festival. It’s currently playing in cinemas in the UK and Éire (Ireland) now, courtesy of MUBI. A streaming release date has not yet been announced.