What are the problems and possibilities of Hollywood history? ActiveHistory is pleased to feature a four-essay forum on The Revenant, a 2015 Hollywood historical epic set against the backdrop of the early 1800s North American fur trade. As a primer, we recommend reading Stacy Nation-Knapper’s excellent review from earlier this year.
The Revenant is the latest of ghostly resurrections of the Hugh Glass story, and in many ways the worst in the ways it distorts the history of the French-speaking traders, trappers, and boatmen who outnumbered the Anglo-American “mountain men” by a ratio of four-to-one in the era depicted. Each time the tale has been told, the purpose is nonetheless the same, to define the new American hero. This latest haunting is no different. The movie first and foremost glorifies the hyper-individualist hero. Not only does Glass kill a grizzly bear, he does so alone. The first telling of the tale in 1825 was a bit more modest as it was Glass’s companions that came to his rescue: “the main body of trappers having arrived, advanced to the relief of Glass, and delivered seven or eight shots with such unerring aim as to terminate hostilities, by despatching [sic] the bear as she stood over her victim.” Written shortly after the incident and having certainly met Glass or acquaintances of Glass in person, the 1825 account had to be a bit more restrained in telling Glass’s story. Nonetheless, since 1825, both historians and popular culture have contributed to denigrating then burying then denying the history of the French speakers of the West and on both sides of the 49th Parallel.
The reality is the colonial French were actively pushing into the plains a century prior to the 1820s. In the 1720s, the French had established the “Compagnie des Sioux” with the stated intent of trading with the Sioux in this very region of the world where the historical Hugh Glass was crawling.
Even after the Conquest, the descendants of the French in the Americas, the Canadien, the Créole and the Métis, continued their efforts to establish trade and profits. Saint Louis in the 1820s was largely French-speaking and Francophones were the backbone of the fur trade. Without them, neither the American Fur Company, nor the newcomer to the field, Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company, nor even the Hudson’s Bay Company would have survived a fortnight in the West.
Hugh Glass is the American hero writ large, and the story of Hugh Glass follows the conventional trajectory of American mythmaking. The first publication was James Hall publication of “The Missouri Trapper” in Philadelphia’s literary journal Port Folio in March 1825. As Jon Coleman in his analysis notes, Hall’s work is tied to his desire to define what it meant to be American. “Attracted to the ‘romance of real life’ and the potential of the West to supply American heroes of Herculean proportions, he found Glass irresistible.” The newspapers of the American east were devouring the stories from the rugged west. Coleman describes Hall’s Letters from the West as the articulation of a national narrative where men became brutes in the frontier, but returned as beacons of the American spirit: “They acquired the independence and democratic spirit that distinguished rough-hewn Americans from delicate Europeans.” Hall provides the basic outline of the Glass’ story that would be retold over close to two centuries. However, the challenge of the predominance of the French-speakers in the fur trade complicated matters.
For James Hall, telling the story of Hugh Glass was certainly preferable to that of the Canadien and Métis other. In first telling the tale, Hall is nonetheless required to use the French language when describing Glass’s story. For example, when describing how Glass survived those first ten days when he managed to crawl to a nearby spring: “During this period he subsisted upon cherries that hung over the spring, and grains des boeufs, or buffaloe-berries, that were within his reach.” It is telling that he provides the French term first, implying that this is what Glass and others would have called them. Likewise, he similarly refers first to the “Les Cotes Noirs (the Black Hills)” with the English in parentheses implying that this was his translation. The landscape is French, and Hall in turn recounts how Glass leaves Fort Kiawa in the company of a group of certainly French-speaking outbound voyageurs: “Before his wounds were entirely healed, the chivalry of Glass was awakened, and he joined a party of five engagés, who were bound, in a piroque [sic], to Yellow Stone River.” The five men would later be killed by the Arikara according to Hall’s account, after Glass had parted ways with them. One final indirect indicator of the continuing dominance of the French language was the Arikara chief’s name that Hall states as Langue de Biche (Elk’s Tongue).
All told, Hall’s epic account follows the pattern that we have analyzed, the French-speaking engagés and voyageurs and traders are omnipresent, but to create a national American epic tale, it is necessary to relegate them to the background. Thus, Hall never once mentions who these engagés were and why he is using so many French terms, but he is beginning the process of burying the history of the Canadien, Créole and Métis in the American West, as he writes to recreate the American narrative. In the case of the movie The Revenant, the “French” are given short shrift, still being depicted as being secondary, if unscrupulous, players in the fur trade, but González Iñarritú seems to have kept them in the script as they could be depicted as antagonists—evil and lacking the heroic spirit of Hugh Glass, the true American.
In 1915, the Hugh Glass story was revived in poetry with John Neihardt (1915) publishing an epic account in verse of Glass’s story. By the 1950s, the cowboy lore was in full renaissance, and Frederick Feikima Manfred (2011) first published the novel Lord Grizzly in 1954.
What is central is the creation or the revival of the national narrative, which presents the westward push of the United States in nation-centric terms. As Frederick Manfred’s daughter writes: “Hugh Glass’s act of forgiveness is the maturing of the American spirit, the final destination of the American soul.” Authors such as Manfred specify they are not historians, but they nonetheless help to create a popular history that marginalizes real history, and this is done to define the nation. Too often history follows suit, perhaps redressing some of the details, but not challenging the narrative. The Revenant thus both remembers and forgets in its recreation of the American nation for a new generation.
Michel Bouchard is a professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern British Columbia. He is the co-author with Robert Foxcurran and Sébastien of Songs Upon the Rivers: The Buried History of the French-Speaking Canadiens and Métis from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across to the Pacific.
Breaking the mythologies of the American grand narrative has proven to be extremely problematic, despite the work of academics. Jay Gitlin’s The Bourgeois Frontier tackled this exact problem, reinserting the story of the French of the St. Louis and the of the broader western fur trade back into the American story. In it, he positioned French merchants as negotiators between incoming Americans officials and traders, and Indigenous peoples. Gilles Havard’s latest book on the history of coureurs de bois similarly dispels the anglo-centric notion of western colonial expansion, and his review of The Revenant in Le Monde is worthwhile reading. Nicole St-Onge’s work on voyageurs of the American Fur Company and our joint work on the voyageur contracts out of Montreal detail the hundreds of French-Canadian voyageurs destined for the Missouri trade. And of course there has been quite a bit done previously on the French members of Lewis and Clark’s western expedition. There are other examples, of course, but all of this to say that there is a fairly substantial historical counter-narrative to that of Anglo-American exceptionalism. What concerns me the most is the anti-French angle of the film, which seems to go hand-in-hand with the old American grand narrative, and which pulls from outdated historical interpretations. It appears that historians still have a lot of work to do in dispelling these myths, which pull from outdated historical interpretations and are reinvented in works like the Revenant. Historians – there is a lot of work still to be done…
Robert, thank you for the thoughtful comment. I would also add that the popular myth also seeps back into history. How many future teachers will pop in the film at some point presenting the film as accurate history, not questioning the narrative? Likewise, even professional historians portray a skewed portrayal of the past in subtle, and likely unintentional ways. For example, histories written of Washington State that will list the participants in the Pacific Northwest’s fur trade era, but will invariably finish with the “French Canadians” thus implying that they were less numerous than the others, even though they were the largest cohort.