Review: Los Colonos (The Settlers)

A dark and overlooked history lies at the heart of this hard-punching Chilean take on the Western

© QuijoteFilm

Director Felipe Gálvez | Released Out now

The highly publicised but often exaggerated battleground between the historian and filmmaker – one with an absolutist eye for accuracy, the other with an insatiable appetite for drama – has seemingly never been more divisive than in recent times.

While some big-budget flicks have made loud forays across this well-worn terrain, others take the subtler revisionist’s route, brilliantly unravelling and reintroducing a history we thought we understood, like Los Colonos (The Settlers). 

The film begins in Chile, 1901. Former British soldier Lieutenant MacLennan (Mark Stanley), is tasked by a landowner to secure a track of land in the Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago at the country’s southernmost point. With him is an American mercenary, Jim (Benjamín Westfall), and Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), a mixed-race Chilean.

Mark Stanley, Camilo Arancibia and Benjamín Westfall star in Los Colonos (2023)
© QuijoteFilms

However, the journey turns into a bloodthirsty hunt for native Chileans, called the Ona. Jim, experienced in hunting Comanches in North America, leads a murderous surprise attack on a group of Ona, while Segundo holds back, horrified by the onslaught. Eventually reaching their destination – at the ‘end of the earth’ as a large, ominous, red subtitle reads – MacLennan and the group learn that their own brutality can be meted back upon them. 

In a short running time of just over 1.5 hours, debutant director Felipe Gálvez opens up a world, and a story, that has remained at the far fringes of the nation’s history. As we discover, it is a history that has been quietly concealed.

The dark heart of Gálvez’s narrative is the genocide of the indigenous Selk’nam people, during the late 19th and early 20th century. Gálvez has discussed how Segundo, based on a real figure, represents the plight of mixed-race Chileans, many of whom were the victims of, but also sometimes participants in, the violent process of colonisation.
So to say that The Settlers (Los Colonos) is a thousand miles away from the gun-slinging heroics of the Old West would be an understatement, but it is also revising the historical narrative of the European as the sole coloniser in South America.

Gálvez re-paints this past with a grisly and gut-punching realism. Pacing, cinematography and even Harry Allouche’s score all create an eerie, discomforting tension, which for many will rhyme with Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007). Meanwhile the film’s poignant epilogue confronts us with the stark and equally discomforting lie, lingering within the story of a nation’s birth.      

Subscribe to
All About History now for amazing savings!

For more of the latest book and film reviews pick up the latest issue of All About History