The Revenant – Stamina
“Revenir” in French means return, to come back, and, in this film, to come back from the dead, to be really and materially resurrected. This is a film about resurrection and revenge. The medium of resurrection was the holy spirit of the dead wife of Hugh Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio). As I wrote in my blog on Friday, the lesson was to keep breathing no matter what, because the Holy Spirit was in “ruah,” the breath of life.
The motive for Hugh Glass’ pursuit of revenge was the killing of his half-breed son by John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), even if, according to legend, the revenge was because Glass had been left for dead contrary to the code of trappers and fur traders and the military forces that provided a degree of protection. In Western legend, Hugh Glass, a frontier trapper and fur trader, was attacked by a bear and left for dead by two other trappers, but he was not buried alive and the events took place in late summer rather than in late winter.
Why the infusion of a different theme of survival than the one handed down in history? And why was a non-existent son included, but given such a flimsy almost ethereal presence to complement that of his invented mother? The answer may be found in Alejandro González Iñarritu’s comments as the director; he envisioned Hugh Glass as an amalgam of “a man, a beast, a saint, a martyr, a spirit.” The question is how does this syncretic view compare and contrast with inherited legend, and how does it rewrite the mythology of the American frontier?
Why did the native American hung from a tree, presumably by French trappers, have a sign hung around his neck, “On est tous des sauvages” (we are all savages)? Was it an assertion about Native Americans or a universal assertion that in the Wild West, in a Hobbesian world of each man for himself in competition with every other, all humans are savages? If universal, is this thesis put out there as a contrast with a competing ethic of human survival through the help and care of others, through the mediation of women, through a God of mercy and not just justice? Is the film really about “mercy” competing with “justice” for pre-eminence? If so, why in the end does vengeful justice emerge supreme instead, as legend has it, Hugh Glass eventually forgave the two trappers who abandoned him?
But, of course, it is breathing we hear at the end. So ruah is still associated with mercy, with survival, even if Glass, in the film, lost his soul to justice. Redemption was still possible through the feminine aspect of the divine spirit, through the shechinah. In the legend of Hugh Glass, there is both masculine individualism and the power of justice to motivate, but, in the end, mercy wins out as the feminine aspect in the male soul is the real power behind survival. In the movie, that feminine aspect is almost totally externalized in a female ghost and lives on only after the God of cruel justice has his revenge.
In a blog a few days ago, I quoted from Abraham Lincoln’s first public speech at the Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, called, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” I repeat the first part of that quote here:
We [the American People] find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.
In The Revenant, the far West was on the verge of being conquered and wrestled away from the French just fifteen years before Abraham Lincoln made his speech. In the first half of the nineteenth century, these were “the new territories.” The West (ironically, as we shall see, the Canadian West and, in the end, Argentina, were used in the film) is not portrayed as verdant and bucolic, fertile and graced with a salubrious climate. It is starkly and much more beautiful, but also far more inhospitable with its cold and its cliffs, its ice and wild rivers and even wilder “savages.” [Excuse my politically incorrect language, but it is true to the film.] However, although the scenes do not correspond to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills where the Crazy Horse Memorial is located and that I described last year in my blogs as we drove through South Dakota and to which we will be returning next week, for thematic purposes, the Alberta landscape was probably more suitable.
I am writing this review in expectation that by now everyone has seen the movie in the theatre where it absolutely must be seen. It is such a magnificent visual product. But I will not focus on the difference in landscape between Alberta and the Black Hills, with the ending even shot in Argentina because Canada’s winter had been too mild, with the fact that in the short days in winter with so few daylight hours and the desire to shoot only in natural light to enhance “the realism” in accordance with the aesthetic decisions of the academy award winners Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director, and cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, to shoot only with natural light for maximum realism, meant that they were only able to shoot a few hours a day. I will not allude to the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio, a vegetarian, ate real raw liver allegedly from a bison to give a real feel to his hunger.
However, as the readers will see, it is important that Iñárritu was a tyrant on set and that Tom Hardy, who, in my contention, was the best actor in the film, came to fisticuffs with his tyrannical director. Further, some comparison to reality is necessary to clarify what the film is really about. There are a number of iconic characters in the narrative of America “taming” the West, some, like Davie Crockett, very well known and others that you encounter in the wonderful museums in virtually every town throughout the West when you travel through the U.S. Those are icons that I had previously known nothing about. Hugh Glass was not a virtual unknown. There may not be songs written about him to make him a household name, but his story is reasonably widespread to those who read about the West and love westerns.
So why change the facts of history? Why, in the film, let his companions in the wilderness set his leg snapped by the bear, when, according to the “real” historical narrative, he set his own leg? Why give him a half-breed son when there is no record of his having had a son, part native or otherwise? If realism was the goal, why evade essential elements of realism? Though setting one’s own broken leg might be harder to believe, exploding gunpowder on a wound to cauterize it was perhaps more sensational, and I did not know that he had actually done that until I saw the film and double checked afterwards. And why not include the grossest scene of all, Glass rolling around in rot to allow maggots to eat away the gangrene that had infused his wounds?
Glass, in the film, is made into a loving father and a romantic male haunted by the love of his life, his native wife. But he never had a wife, native or otherwise. He was truly a wilderness survivor who relied on his inherited individual resources. Native aboriginal peoples helped him, but not nearly as much as the film suggested, for the narratives handed down in history again make him an exemplar of the rugged individualist who could conquer the challenges of nature on his own. He, according to legend, actually crawled several hundred miles with his broken leg, though we only get a hint of that in the film. The film clearly suggests that his survival skills – sucking bone marrow from the skeleton of a dead bison – are what count. The film, however, suggests that these were survival techniques learned from Native Americans, which could possibly be truer than the stories of the Robinson Crusoe who virtually survives on his own.
And what about Jim Bridger, the young boy who is persuaded by John Fitzgerald to leave Glass behind in spite of the agreement made with the fort’s captain? I looked up the “real” story and, as it turns out, both of the trappers who abandoned him were eventually found and forgiven, Bridger, as suggested in the film because he was duped by Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald himself, not because of any act of mercy towards him, but because Glass knew he would be hung for murdering an active military man.
Further, Hugh Glass went on to live another ten years and did not die in a vengeful battle. I write all of this, not to insist that a film conform with inherited historical reality, but to ask why history is being so totally rewritten when visual realism, when the feeling of the real, has been such an aesthetic dictatorial principle in making the film, but historical realism has been simply cast into the dustbin of history? I contend that the reason is that the director is involved in the construction of a new mythology about the West intended to displace the old one.
What is that old mythology?
Frederick Jackson Turner, an American historian, at the end of the nineteenth century, advanced the thesis that the American character had been formed and forged by the process of westward movement of pioneers and settlers, a character reinforced at each stage of western movement and reified by legend and history. On Sunday, we will be driving by Chicago to reach and pass through the latest stages where that character was forged and it is in Chicago where Turner first presented his famous paper introducing us to his thesis about the American character.
I think it is no coincidence that it was in Chicago that Donald Trump had to cancel his rally with the lie that it was because peaceful protesters were threats when the real threats came for his own supporters and his instigations to prove that “might is right,” that force works, and that what counts in a leader is strength and not wisdom, will and certainly not judgment. Almost fifty years earlier, at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, riots broke out in the International Amphitheater in late August in response to the news that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and in the way that Mayor Richard Daley had responded to Black rage.
This time, white rage, not so much at economic injustice as it has widely been portrayed (though undoubtedly a factor), but white rage as white resentment and latent racism that still permeates America and is redirected by Trump at Muslims and Mexicans. But Black rage is still evident in the way the campaign to nominate Hillary Clinton has been hurt by Rahm Emanuel, currently mayor of Chicago and former White House Chief of Staff under Barack Obama, and rage that is now directed at how he has handled, or mishandled, the information on the police treatment of Blacks that has leaked out. Chicago remains a testing ground for American values. In the nineteenth century, Chicago served as the bridge between the opening frontier and settled America.
When presidential candidates, from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton, cite liberty and egalitarianism, though different versions of each, as the core of the American character, when Republicans and Democrats take such opposite views of the use of coercive force both domestically and internationally, in the case of Donald Trump stressing non-conformity and the refusal to accept any inherited norms of correct political conduct as supervening while his opponents rail at his torching the conventions that have governed politics in the U.S., we watch current emanations of the conflict over the role of the frontier and settled America.
The irony, of course, is that politicians of all stripes talk about the eternal and unchanging character of American equality of opportunity, of liberty and of justice, but Frederick Jackson Turner had an evolutionary model of the functioning of the frontier in the tension between civilization versus the wilderness. “Establishment,” whichever establishment it is, became a term of abuse which Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders all rhetorically rail against because American history is so imbued with a narrative that insists that America was forged in opposition to any standing class, to any aristocracy, to any established church, and, currently, to any establishment in Washington.
The issue for all has become insensitivity to the rising expression of the will of the people and Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sander’s monopoly over the economic version of this thesis has been removed. Of course, all this depends on ignoring the fact that “the checks and balances” system of democracy is but an inheritance from Great Britain reconstructed as a democratic monarchy. The king is now elected, but must be opposed as soon as he or she is in office. And Trotsky wrote about “continuous or permanent revolution!”
As Turner wrote, as Americans moved further and further into taming the wilderness and the Rockies, they became more and more prone to resist intrusive government, more “democratic,” more intolerant of any hierarchy. It does not matter if Donald Trump is a billionaire, what matters is that he sells himself like a snake oil salesman as anti-establishment and does it so much better than any other competitor. Of course, in Turner’s thesis, the more Americans moved West, the more they moved further away from inherited institutions, the more violence and individuals taking security into their own hands became the ruling norm. Not science, not a refined sense of fine art, but literally a society forged out of tooth and claw.
For Turner, with the conquest and taming of the New Territories by the end of the nineteenth century, the forge out of which the America was built, would no longer be in play. What Turner did not envision is that this construct became even more powerful as it was divorced from actual history and became an integral element in American mythology. If the frontier closed on the ground, it had a vastly wider purview when it operated on the mythological rather than the earthly plane.
It may help to contrast the American mythology with the Canadian tale of the frontier developed by Harold Innis that became so pervasive when I was at university, especially in its revamped form of communications theory of Marshal McLuhan. For the fur trade was not so much about the interaction of humans in conflict with nature in a lawless universe, but about establishing communication routes and contacts between and among peoples. Sometimes that would entail violent conflict, but most times it was negotiations and treaties, about trade and exchange of goods, of ideas, of services. In America, the frontier was a region of natural and inherent contestation. In Canada, opening the West was a matter of utilizing different technologies of communication that altered both the so-called wilderness and the ordered system of government coming into contact with a different political and social order. The issue was not so much violent conflict as inter-cultural exchange.
Harold Innis was an economic historian. His “staples thesis” about the fur trade was a tale of export-led growth. In Canada, the issue was natural resources – fur, fish, lumber, mineral commodities – and how these could be brought to markets where they were wanted and needed for a developing consumer economy. Cod and its modes of collection, transformation and transportation produced one kind of culture while furs produced a different one. Canada was inherently multicultural dependent on which natural resource was being exploited. The American frontier thesis was about a constant and universal quality inherent and characteristic of all Americans, reinforced, not because it happened to be fur that was being fought over among Americans, the French and the native peoples, but because the fight was a constant whatever the commodity and whatever the place.
I recall that my eldest son’s first publication – or one of his first major ones – was on the contrast between the way Argentina was settled and the way Canada was settled in the freezing climate of the West at the end of the nineteenth century. In Canada, only when a new strain of wheat was invented that could survive in that harsh climate could the West be settled. Civilization was a precondition for settling the West and not antithetical to it.
The combination of the type of commodity (then wheat) versus cattle, the communication routes for labour and capital, the technology of a new strain of wheat and of a new form of transportation, railways, all were woven together to produce different characters in different regions dependent on the interaction of a variety of factors rather than a thesis of a constant battle between wilderness and civilization, between individuals and inherited social establishments.
In The Reverant, there is no mention that the fur trade was controlled by large multinational companies, in Canada, the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, where the emphasis was on the need for large companies to facilitate the trade instead of on the wild individual, whether a trapper or a prospector of minerals. Large companies, centres of finance capital and the creation of technologically-founded communication routes were all crucial to find and forge the materials. So Canada is much more attuned to the importance of international trade and large multinational firms, to trade and transportation more than acquisition, to cultural mosaics rather than forging a unified national character, to cooperation more than competitiveness, to the volatility of resource economies in general and to the disruptions and radical changes required by broad technological evolutions.
Which takes us back to the film. For in the movie, the Mexican director is using the lament over the demise of the old individualistic American mythology of the frontier to forge a new one. Cooperation and competition are in contention. Law and order versus the wild West are in contention. The feminine spirit is at the heart of survival in nature, shechinah rather than Elohim, the merciful Adonai more than the God of justice. The villain kills he who is Other. The villain denies and disrupts family values. The hero insists on revenge, but survives, not only to take revenge, but because of the spirit world which is the world of the feminine.
In the days of modern communication when electronic and digital media are at war with old-fashioned television in the political marketplace of ideas in the American election, The Revenant is really an old fashioned frontier movie, but with a new vision of the frontier embedded with mercy as a value, embedded with a feminine spirit, in an effort to transvalue and resurrect, not just Hugh Glass, but an old American ethic for a new age.
Elohim, the God of justice, and Adonai, the God of mercy infused and evocative of the shechinah as would eventually be expressed in the post-biblical period, are in contention. As the Mexican Director has interpreted it and as American politicians and voters experience every day, the issue is stamina, who can survive best the legions of arrows shot at both candidates and voters in barrages every day. It is we, crippled with a broken leg and suffering wounds that would kill most mortals, who crawl hundreds of miles to the finish line.
The issue is over stamina, not individualism, and a different expression of stamina than demonstrated by Terry Fox in his run across Canada against cancer. For Terry Fox became a hero even though he lost his life to cancer. Donald Trump denigrated the American war hero, John McCain, even though he survived five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. After all, he was a loser and not a winner. In the revised mythology and the inherited one, only winners count. Losers must be cast aside, except when opposing Trump and the God of mercy is then invoked. We need a liberal rather than two different and competing tyrannical versions of the frontier tale.