News of the World has many features of a Western but its hero has much more psychological depth than Western heroes of old.
The film takes its title from the main character’s job. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a Civil War veteran who now makes his living by travelling from one small frontier town to the next and giving readings from newspapers with both local news and much more exotic pieces from Europe and India.
The setting is Texas in 1870, five years after the Civil War in which Texas — and Kidd — was on the losing side. Most of the people Kidd reads to are poor pioneers trying to make enough to survive from farming.
On the road, Kidd discovers the scene of a lynching: a black government official who was accompanying an orphaned child has been killed. The 10-year-old girl is terrified and doesn’t speak English. Kidd discovers a document that explains she is the child of German settlers. When they were killed in a raid by the Kiowa tribe, the Native Americans brought little Johanna up and she now only speaks Kiowa.
Her Native American family has now been killed in the ongoing conflict between the tribes and the farmers, and Johanna was being transported to an aunt and uncle 400 miles away.
Kidd tries to hand Johanna over to the authorities but they are overwhelmed. Not seeing any other solution, he decides he will take the girl through the lawless terrain to her family.
Spoiler Alert: Kidd and Johanna are clearly traumatised by the violence they have seen and experienced. When Johanna comes up with a clever trick to help Kidd make his hunting rifle lethal, as viewers we are happy that the pair are making a connection. Then the full horror of a 10-year-old being forced to help kill a bandit to survive dawns on us.
The figure of the child (or woman) abducted by “Indians” is common in western fiction, both the popular novels of the 19th century and the films that followed. Most often the tribes are depicted as cruel marauders and the good cowboys need to save the innocent child.
In the classic Western The Searchers (1956), John Wayne also plays a Texan Civil War veteran, Ethan Edwards, who spends years in an increasingly futile attempt to rescue his abducted nieces, following the Comanche tribes as they are forced into more and more remote, barren territory by government policy. As the years pass, Edwards develops a deep hatred of the tribes and desire for revenge.
Learning about the Kiowa
Here, although the Kiowa are almost entirely absent from the film, they are presented more sympathetically. Johanna has clearly been treated well by them and her only wish is to return to the tribe. She glimpses them several times in the distance, on their forced migration, and calls out plaintively for them to come back for her.
There were Kiowa consultants on the film ensuring that the tribe was depicted realistically. Linguistics professor Dr Laurel J. Watkins and Kowa Elder Dorothy Whitehorse Delaune helped several actors and director Paul Greengrass learn the rudiments of their language.
Johanna is played by Helena Zengel, 12, who is German. She already spoke English well, although she only has to speak it in the film as someone for whom it is a completely foreign language. She really enjoyed learning the Kiowa language and culture, and explained, “Laurel was a great teacher, and always made the lessons fun, and Dorothy was raised in the real tradition that I’m playing. Spending time with her gave me so much insight into how Johanna sees the world. She shared so many stories and memories, like how she cut her braids in mourning, just like Johanna does.”
News of the World
Streaming now on Netflix
We have a B1+-level Ready-to-Use resource on the film to use with your pupils.