The Revenant and Historical Memory

It’s February, and awards season is in full effect. That The Revenant has so firmly ensconced itself on the nation’s cinema screens and bus hoardings at this particular time of year is, of course, no coincidence. And for most of the people who have watched it, it will only ever be one thing: an epic testament to Leonardo DiCaprio’s rabid, relentless determination to win an Oscar.

Perhaps more fairly to its visionary director Alejandro González Iñárritu, many will remember it as a stunning evocation of nature’s immense cruelty; a sensory barrage of breathless action sequences and awe-inspiring photography. The theatrically-inclined, on the other hand, will see it as a tightly (if not succinctly) plotted revenge tragedy of monumental proportions, brought vividly to life by a suitably bug-eyed cast.

It is, of course, all of these things. It is also the newest masterpiece in a vital artistic tradition that turns the mythology of manifest destiny on its head, shining an ugly light on the skeletons in America’s closet. This tradition is as necessary now as ever, and we ignore it at our peril.

The Revenant is based on the substantially true story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper on the frontier of the nineteenth century American West. DiCaprio plays Glass, who sets out in 1823 on a trapping expedition along the Missouri River that soon goes awry. Left for dead by his fellow entrepreneurs, Glass embarks on a painstaking journey of revenge across the unforgiving Dakota landscape, grunting and screaming all the way in a manner befitting one so relentlessly savaged by mother nature and Academy voters. This central plotline is interwoven with dreamlike flashbacks to the village raid that left Glass’ wife dead, and the parallel exploits of his comrades-turned-antagonists.

Into this richly evoked world of blood and glaciers flow a number of historical currents. Foremost is that of the fur trappers themselves – the suicidally brave or foolish men who carved a pioneering path across northern America in pursuit of profit from the hugely lucrative trade in beaver fur. Iñárritu paints a grimly realistic picture with reds and muddy browns: these were wholly rapacious commercial enterprises fraught with dangers that served not to ennoble but to brutalise those involved.

Competing with the Anglo-American protagonists is a group of French trappers; a last clinging vestige of the influence exerted on the continent by a nation that only decades earlier had been vying for its control. Here, just like their English-speaking counterparts, they are in thrall to greed, lust, and racist European supremacy; this isn’t The Patriot.

Most compelling of all, though, is the film’s portrayal of American Indians, who are in many ways central to the plot. The 1820s setting grimly prefigures the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that put the United States’ eradication of indigenous culture on a formal footing, and few other films have captured so vividly the sheer corrosiveness of European interaction with American Indian peoples in the final decades of Westward expansion. The colonisers’ bigotry is embodied with ugly clarity in Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald, and the effects of systematic ethnic cleansing are felt in the vengeful presence of the Arikara warriors who alternately hunt and exploit the trappers.

It is by no means a straightforward depiction, instead conveying nuance that is nearly always missing from big-screen representations of American Indians. The Arikara chieftain – whose search for his abducted daughter is one of the narrative’s driving forces – grimaces with moral disgust at the chauvinist ranting of a French trapper who doesn’t realise he speaks the language. And Glass’ half-Pawnee son Hawk, played superbly by Forrest Goodluck, visibly struggles to reconcile his sense of filial duty with his anger at Fitzgerald’s racist provocations. It’s reminiscent of another recent onscreen depiction of the complexity of American identity, in the lately concluded second series of Fargo and it just might be symptomatic of a promising trend in American cultural discourse.

But there is nothing patronising about this portrayal. The Arikara – as well as the Sioux and Pawnee who lurk on the periphery of the narrative – are neither the benign primitives nor the faceless savages of racist Hollywood stereotype. They are violent, yes – in real life they had little choice but to meet the colonisers’ brutality with their own – but this violence isn’t a means of cinematic dehumanisation. Rather, in the context of pervasive cruelty that Iñárritu establishes, it’s an essential element of The Revenant’s testament to the complex and ugly historical fact of American genocide. It’s present not only in the film’s well publicised battle scenes, but in its subtle (and not so subtle) depictions of European sexual exploitation of American Indian women.

In its uncompromising portrayal of these historical conflicts and personalities, The Revenant is strongly reminiscent of another high-watermark of artistic historical revisionism: Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 magnum opus Blood Meridian. In that novel – also based on true events in the first half of the nineteenth century – a band of unscrupulous American mercenaries wander the deserts of Arizona and northern Mexico in search of American Indians whose scalps – once forcibly removed – they can sell. What starts off as a state-sponsored mission soon spirals out of control as the men become more and more violent, raping and pillaging their way across the Mexican Cession and up through California. David Foster Wallace called it the most horrifying book of the century; “the western to end all westerns.” It is an absolutely devastating critique of the concept of manifest destiny that sustained American Westward expansion in the nineteenth century.

Like Blood MeridianThe Revenant pries off the benevolent mask of the American pioneer to reveal the putrid truth behind it. The men who really led the charge across the continent weren’t the clean-cut civilisers of Victorian picture-book fame; they were unprincipled, exploitative chancers. Their values were borne not of Enlightenment rationalism, but avarice and desperation. The concepts of progress and civilisation that have historically validated their advance were ex post facto justifications erected on the graves of the indigenous Americans they killed by the thousands. This is the unhappy truth of manifest destiny upon which the American Dream is founded.

It’s not the central theme of The Revenant, though. The central theme of The Revenant is revenge, which knows neither time nor place. But it’s a hugely important part of the film, and one that locates it in the intellectual lineage not just of Blood Meridian, but also of other ‘anti-western’ pictures such as There Will Be Blood and Robert Altman’s 1971 masterpiece McCabe and Mrs Miller. In the latter, a shady businessman played by Warren Beatty sets up a brothel in a small mining town in Washington in the dying days of the Old West era. Though he succeeds at first in exploiting everyone around him, his plans collapse as American enterprise, having reached its moral and geographical limits, begins to eat itself.

McCabe’s haunting climax is echoed in The Revenant’s own finale, and both films vividly evoke the sordid human cost of progress. Understood as part of this subversive tradition, The Revenant is an important and urgent work, because understanding the past and giving due recognition to those who have suffered will always be a matter of urgency – just ask Leonardo DiCaprio.

Words by Otis Graham