Film Friday: The Revenant is Beautiful, Disappointing Art

Stacy Nation-Knapper

Stills courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Stills courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The Revenant is not history. Yes, as the film trailers, posters, and advertisements boast, the film was “inspired by true events” and it represents an amalgam of multiple historic fur trade events during the years 1820-24, and fantasy. Most of the non-Indigenous characters in the film existed. Other writers, including Clay Landry for the Museum of the Mountain Man and Alex von Tunzelmann for The Guardian, have explored the general historical accuracy of the film and I will add little to such critiques here, though there is more to be said. In the tradition of fur trade reenactors, it is possible to fact-check each scene against the historical record. Few films hold up well under such scrutiny. The nineteenth-century Missouri River fur trade is represented fairly well in The Revenant as a dirty, dangerous, ethnically diverse arm of the global economy. The paucity of evidence about Glass’s life means stories of his life are more legend than history and the film is no exception. The story of Hugh Glass is an excellent seed for artistic filmmaking because evidence is sparse and lore is abundant. In the process of creating art from that seed, however, the filmmakers made disappointing choices of appropriation and sensationalistic excess.

Much has been made of the artistic beauty of The Revenant and for good reason. It is a beautiful film. The cinematography is breathtaking and breaks the fourth wall in alarming ways that draw the viewer into the cold, the fear, and the violence of the setting. Actors’ breaths fog the lens when they strain in the cold, their blood splatters the screen as their bodies are brutally mangled, water splashes the camera as Glass is swept over a waterfall, and the final scene leaves the audience with Glass staring and panting directly into the camera. The film is gory, much like life in the early nineteenth-century fur trade, and the realistic and grisly depictions of Glass’s body after he stumbled upon a bear and her cubs closely match the descriptions passed down from traders, including the blood bubbling out of his exposed trachea. Such imagery was uncomfortably realistic, and the audience squirmed and cringed because it was depicted well.

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Stills courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The sky and water are omnipresent characters in the film that have been largely overlooked by reviewers. Each time the camera lifted skyward, I felt a tinge of homesickness for the seemingly endless skies of the west, but there is also terror in that vastness. Being alone beneath the expansive western sky can be a horrifying psychological experience and skyward shots throughout the film reinforce the fear and isolation Glass may have felt after Fitzgerald and Bridger left him for dead. Water runs throughout the film as a life force and a bridge between worlds. Water was crucial for survival and was not only the mode of conveyance for fur traders, it was also succor during long, difficult days of work. Water was responsible for the deaths of many traders and its danger is evident throughout the film, as traders died in it, it flowed over already-dead corpses, and it conveyed characters between the worlds of the living and the dead. The music of The Revenant rounds out the artistic experience with subtle, haunting, and evocative sound that is often so well placed that it is easy to overlook. Reviews of the film’s music can be found elsewhere and further support the argument that The Revenant is a skillfully crafted work of art.

Stills courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Stills courtesy of 20th Century Fox

So, if this film is so beautiful and not that historically inaccurate, since it’s based primarily on myth, how could it possibly disappoint? My first bone to pick with The Revenant is the unnecessary and excessive plot changes to what is already known or suspected about the life and adventures of Hugh Glass. Conflating fur trade events for the sake of expediency is perhaps expected, but it seems nonsensical to add sensational fictitious events to the storyline when those already told are just as unbelievable. The most problematic plot change is the addition of Hawk, Glass’s fictional son. I’ll come back to that. Let’s get other, less pernicious, examples out of the way first. During a scene in which Glass steals a horse and is being chased by a group of Arikara people, he and the horse leap off a cliff into a tree and fall to the ground far below. At this point in the film, there has already been a lot of blood, gore, and violence and my fellow viewers laughed out loud. Glass then turned the horse’s body into a sleeping bag. Has anyone ever crawled into a horse carcass for shelter? Probably. But in this context it was simply too much, and there is no indication in any Glass history or lore that it happened. It is, however, recorded that he crawled up on a half-eaten bison carcass and scared away the wolves gnawing on it. Another story tells that he killed a rattlesnake with a rock and ate the snake and the rodent it was slowly digesting. What is known or told about Glass’s life is already pretty fascinating and these over-the-top additions are excessive.

The scenery in The Revenant is stunning, as the Rocky Mountains generally are. Unfortunately, the events depicted in the film did not occur in the mountains, but instead near the fork of the Grand and Missouri rivers in the area that is now the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. It is disappointing, then, that The Revenant was not filmed along the Missouri River, but instead in the mountains of Alberta and Montana. Mountains are foreboding and awe-inspiring, but so are the Plains, and they’re just as terrifying if a person is abandoned, dying, without tools or weapons, as Glass reportedly was. Similarly, while winter is generally a universally understood season of misery, and the artistic interpretation of winter in this film evokes suffering, Glass was abandoned in August in a region of North America that is often inhospitable in late summer and would also make compelling film footage.

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Stills courtesy of 20th Century Fox

All of these relatively minor annoyances aside, one other aspect of The Revenant rendered me physically nauseous within the first ten minutes of the film. While historical conflations, exaggerations, and geographic fibbery are commonplace in artistic interpretations of the past, The Revenant is guilty of an Indigenous-ally bait-and-switch that is the core of my disappointment with the film. Much has rightfully been made of the Indigenous actors who brilliantly portrayed characters with depth and agency, and the filmmakers who set a strong, if perfectly reasonable, example for their peers in casting Indigenous actors to portray Indigenous characters. Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech for Best Actor in a Drama at the Golden Globe Awards caught media attention for acknowledging Indigenous peoples. In the speech, DiCaprio said the film is “about trust” and he “shared” the award with Indigenous people, saying, “It is time that we recognize your history.” These appear to be the actions of filmmakers and a celebrity who genuinely want to support Indigenous communities and draw attention to the exploitation of Indigenous resources.

Choices made in making the film, however, undermine the filmmakers’ good intentions. There is no evidence that Glass had children, nor is there evidence that he had an Indigenous partner. While it was commonplace for fur traders to form families with Indigenous women throughout North America, there is neither evidence nor mention of Glass having done so. The fabricated storyline of Hawk’s life and death, with Glass’s character portrayed as the white hero seeking revenge for his Indigenous son’s death, maintains the disappointing status quo of Indigenous lives as background or flourish for the lives of non-Indigenous central characters. There are allusions throughout the film to atrocities committed against North American Indigenous peoples by colonial governments and settlers, and such events are certainly part of the context of the fur-trade era. Inventing an Indigenous family for the non-Indigenous protagonist to defend and seek revenge for casts Glass as a righteous white saviour when the historical record indicates something else: he was a fur trader who was mauled by a bear, left for dead by his colleagues, and made a remarkable recovery from near death to track down his stolen possessions.

It’s perfectly acceptable to tell stories about the fantastical exploits of dead white men without appropriating the very real lives and experiences of Indigenous people or insulting Indigenous histories by ignoring or altering them to embellish non-Indigenous tales. Not all moviegoers have the tools and knowledge to distinguish between art and history, which is nothing new. Neither is the appropriation of Indigenous cultures. But if the makers of The Revenant can work with Indigenous communities and actors to create such a moving and beautiful work of art and if Leonardo DiCaprio can acknowledge the exploitation of Indigenous people in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, they can avoid appropriating Indigenous lives in the art they create.

Stacy Nation-Knapper is an historian of the fur trade who holds a PhD from York University. She is Chair of the Editorial Committee at Findings/Trouvailles (). 


Further Reading

The first known publication of Glass’s story was in the Port-Folio, a Philadelphia magazine, in 1825. Since then, Glass was mentioned in most histories of the Missouri River fur trade listed below, which frequently referenced Hiram Martin Chittenden’s account of Glass’s encounter with a grizzly bear in his 1902 tome The American Fur Trade of the Far West. One biography of Hugh Glass, written by fantasy writer John Myers Myers, is the most detailed examination of Glass’s life and, since few sources about Glass are known to exist, The Saga of Hugh Glass is largely contextual information about the events and places tangentially relevant to Glass and is thick with nearly unintelligible romanticization. The hagiography of Hugh Glass is remarkable: the poet laureate of Nebraska, John G. Neihardt, perhaps best known for Black Elk Speaks and The Sixth Grandfather, published an epic poem called The Song of Hugh Glass; in 1954, Frederick Manfred released a novel based on Glass’s life called Lord Grizzly; and Michael Punke penned the novel The Revenant, reportedly the inspiration for the film.

Barbour, Barton H. Fort Union and the Upper Missouri Fur Trade. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Barbour, Barton H. Jedediah Smith: No Ordinary Mountain Man. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.

Blevins, Winfred. Give Your Heart to the Hawks: A Tribute to the Mountain Men. Boise, ID: Tamarack Books, 1995.

Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The American Fur Trade of the Far West. New York: F.P. Harper, 1902.

Cleland, Robert Glass. This Reckless Breed of Men: The Trappers and Fur Traders of the Southwest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.

Dolin, Eric Jay. Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Hafen, LeRoy, editor. Mountain Men and Fur Traders of the Far West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Malone, Michael P., Richard B. Roeder, and William L. Lang. Montana: A History of Two Centuries. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.

Morgan, Dale L. and Eleanor Towles Harris. The Rocky Mountain Journals of William Marshall Anderson: The West in 1834. San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1967.

Phillips, Paul Chrisler. The Fur Trade. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

8 thoughts on “Film Friday: The Revenant is Beautiful, Disappointing Art

  1. Very nice piece. The interesting contrast is Tarantino who reimagines history as fantasy – a fantastic appropriation of what could have been – not counterfactual but wholly reimagined, preposterous but fabulous (this works much better in Django than in the Hateful Eight, but the basic approach is the same). The Revenant, much like Lincoln, goes for authenticity, but gets tripped up the need to create a hero out of something unheroic. Hollywood will always seek out (or invent) that white guy who wasn’t racist. It’s authenticity reconfigured for liberal race-guilt. For Tarantino, the details are unimportant – it’s fantasy – because it’s the moral accounting that matters; in that way, Innaritu want to do the same, but weighed down and distracted by the need for heroic redemption.

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