At some point in the fourth reel, this film slipped away from me. I stopped being a participant and became a critic: noticing the settings, costumes, and - kiss of death - the "acting." I watched to the end, but it never recaptured my full involvement.
Which is a shame, because, behind the glibness, there is a worthwhile story.
Back to the basics:
(1) Monotony is, well, monotonous. Here, the pace and the tone feel rigidly programed: either #1 or #2: day or night, light or dark; ponderous solemnity mode or violent chaos mode; no shades of gray, no humor to lighten the mood, no irony or paradox to add depth.
Ditto the people: 1 or 2, light or dark, sententiously philosophical or brutally violent (unless you're native american, in which case you are pretty much taken for granted).
(2) Keep it moving: exposition is deadly, so give us only essentials.
Cut all the prologue, where Quaid's (Pike's) husband and family are brutally slain. Yeah, we know you want to be evenhanded in acknowledging non-white terror on whites. But it is more dramatic and more involving for the audience to experience her from the same fresh, shocked, uncomprehending point of view as Capt Blocker (Bale) does.
Likewise, cut the scene of Blocker's capture of the native american family (another glib attempt to seem evenhanded) and severely edit the exposition of Capt Blocker's assignment to escort Chief Yellow Hawk. Again, it's far more dramatic and involving to reveal the backstory and the animosity in real time, face to face.
Which brings up the question: why don't you show us a scene of Chief Yellow Hawk performing red on white terrorism? Obviously, because that would destroy the audience's sympathy for CYH; and that would ruin the chance for reconciliation; which, in turn, would spoil the moral Sunday School lesson of the movie.
Cut the easterner: adds nothing.
With all the running time gained by cutting out the dead wood, you could actually round out the characters and fill in holes in the plot.
(3) Don't patronize the audience by spelling it out;
At one point someone gives a native american a pouch of tobacco, with the words: "We've treated you shamefully. So I'm giving you this tobacco." With that you flatten the emotional effect. Have enough confidence in us to let the audience have the pleasure of working it out.
(4) What the audience wants to see is the characters dig down to their bedrock as they are forced to make hard choices; accordingly, we require conflict as the characters' expectations collide with reality.
This film tends to take shortcuts.
You want tearful farewells between men, one white, one black? Fine, we're OK with men expressing emotions, even a man expressing love for another man. But first show us - actually show us - what they've sacrificed for each other. No fair springing tears on us unprepared.
You want to show us the first stirrings of sympathy for a stranger through an exchange of clothing? Make it count: prepare for it by showing us the development over time of the giver's change in attitude, and also what giving up the clothing means to the giver.
The screenplay pops in plot points like pegs in a board. Too bad there's no forewarning of Blocker's murderous pal, or of the possibility that Bear Valley might be claimed by whites; result: the audience feels ambushed. How about a little plot construction? You want to use white fur trappers as villains? Fine, but let us in on it ahead of time that they might be in the neighborhood..
There's more, but I hope you get the point. Sadly, the upshot was that I didn't exit the theatre with the insight that "This is how Life works: a man can change; he can reclaim his humanity, even after a life spent doing a nation's dirty work, by acknowledging the humanity of others, even that of his greatest enemy." Instead, it was more like "Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?"