What makes ‘The Revenant’ relevant today
Most people by now will be familiar with the story told in Alejandro Inarritu’s film The Revenant, which looks likely to dominate the Oscars this February. Hugh Glass’ remarkable escape from a bear attack and quest for revenge against the men who left him for dead during an 1823 trapping expedition became one of the great legends of the 19th century American fur trade era. The beauty of Inarritu’s poetic interpretation is that it manages to weave in all sorts of themes and ideas that make this myth entirely relatable to present-day global problems and struggles of the human spirit.
There has been plenty of focus on separating fact from fiction in the film’s portrayal of the story, but the truth is that very little concrete evidence exists to back-up the legend of Hugh Glass, as historian Jon T. Coleman has pointed out. Glass’ story has been told and retold numerous times for nearly two centuries now, first in newspapers and magazines, then in books and movies (The Revenant is actually the second film based on the tale following 1971’s Man in the Wilderness). With each retelling comes a different elaboration. The story is significant, therefore, not for what did or didn’t happen, but for what it represents. As one of the great frontier myths, Glass became a symbol of the archetypal ‘mountain man’ and an embodiment of how Americans wanted to see themselves during that period of nation-making: as defiant survivors in a barbaric wilderness.
The genius of the 21st century version of the story, therefore, is in how it makes Glass’ story relevant, and deeply moving, to modern-day audiences. It’s been described as an ‘anti-western’, and subverts many of the genre’s stereotypes – most notably the portrayal of Native Americans, who have historically been notoriously badly represented in Hollywood films. We repeatedly see evidence of the utter devastation and injustice inflicted on Native American communities at the hands of European greed, through broken promises, ransacked villages and kidnappings. But Inarritu avoids going to the other extreme of portraying the white settlers as one-dimensional villains. Instead, we feel sympathy for everyone, including the fur trappers trying to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Even Glass’ nemesis Fitzgerald comes across as wholly human, although afflicted by racism and ignorance - a victim of the circumstances of the time. The message the audience gets is that routine violence was an ingrained part of this period of American history, an ongoing cycle of vengeance, despair and resentment. The moral ambiguity continues till the very end, when Glass gets his revenge – but there’s no sense of relief or justice, and it’s clear it doesn’t release him from the pain and sadness he’s been through.
DiCaprio, an outspoken environmentalist, has said one of the things that drew him to the film was its deep emphasis on the natural world and the chance to spend time in some of the world’s wildest places: "We went with the purpose of seeing what nature was saying," he told Rolling Stone. Nature, apparently, was relentlessly punishing. The shoot was beset by adverse weather conditions, with temperatures reaching as low as -40C, and unexpected changes in climate that delayed filming for months at a time. On top of this, Inarritu’s choice to film entirely in natural light meant there were only a few hours a day when filming was possible. Outside these hours of perfect light, the cast would rehearse the complex, single-take battle scenes over and over. These stories of endurance all add to the mythic quality of the film, but also mirror the brutality of the story itself. In that harsh environment, men were forced to confront their place in nature, their mortality and the transience of all living things. Nature is presented as both nurturing and terrifying, both aiding Glass and almost killing him - a reminder, perhaps, of the folly of trying to dominate such a powerful force.
20th Century Fox recently released a wonderful documentary which delves into the environmental themes the film touches on – the social and environmental damage caused by unchecked resource exploitation and the loss of land of Native American communities. It’s as beautifully shot as the film itself, and gives a brilliant insight into the thinking of Inarritu, who comes across as sincere, compassionate and genuinely concerned about the impact of human activity on nature. The most moving parts feature Forrest Goodluck (who plays Glass’ mixed-race son Hawk) reflecting on the dam building that has destroyed his community’s ancestral land. The Garrison Dam was built in the mid-20th century on land owned by the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara – collectively known as MHA nation) in the Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota. Several decades after the events depicted in The Revenant, the tribes came together out of economic and social necessity after being devastated by smallpox outbreaks, famine and social upheaval throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite being promised 12 million acres of land by the 1851 Fort Laramie treaty, that figure dropped to less than one million after the passing of various allotment acts and the Homestead Act. The completion of the 3 km dam in 1954 flooded the reservation bottomlands, destroying 94% of the agricultural land and forcing many families to relocate to higher ground.
The negative impacts of natural resource exploitation on the community continue to this day. During the past seven years the reservation has found itself at the centre of the oil and fracking boom – and the pollution, crime and corruption that’s come with that. There are clear parallels with the North American fur trade, fueled by European demand for beaver hats, which almost completely decimated the beaver population and drove European expansion further and further into Native American territory.
DiCaprio has spoken out several times lately about the destructive effects of the extractive industries, most recently in Davos where he told World Economic Forum delegates: “We simply cannot afford to allow the corporate greed of the coal, oil and gas industries to determine the future of humanity.” If there is an underlying message in The Revenant, it’s a tragic one: human greed has always been at the root of the most shameful periods of history, and we continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.