It’s nice to see The Revenant getting some attention during movie awards season. Although it takes quite a few liberties with the Hugh Glass story, it’s a well-made film and a powerful depiction of the hardships and dangers endured by the nineteenth-century fur traders.
One of the things that struck me about the movie is the way its two main characters reflect contrasting frontier archetypes, set apart by their interactions with the West’s original inhabitants. These archetypes appear and again over the course of the American frontier’s history, from the colonial era through the late nineteenth century.
For some people, the frontier was a liminal realm where cultural and racial barriers broke down and where a degree of mutual accommodation and hybridity was possible. Moving and living among Indians, these traders, trappers, and missionaries straddled the border between the worlds in which they were born and the ones they inhabited. Examples of this type would include the coureurs de bois of New France, who sometimes too up residence among Indians, learned their languages, adopted their dress and customs, and married into their societies. Another would be Simon Girty, who assimilated into Indian culture and fought with Britain’s Native allies in the American Revolution.
In the film, Hugh Glass (the title character played by Leonardo DiCaprio) comes across as this type of frontiersman. Formerly married to an Indian woman, he has a mixed-race son and is himself bilingual, as fluent in the language of the Indians he encounters as he is in English. The film’s Glass thus represents a particular frontier archetype: the white man for whom cultural and ethnic barriers are permeable.
Richard Slotkin has referred to the archetypal “man who knows Indians” in frontier literature. This figure is often a warrior; he uses his familiarity with Indians to defeat them on their own terms, demonstrating his own superiority in the process. The Revenant‘s take is a little different. While Glass has violent encounters with Indians, the point of his ordeal is not so much that he survives by killing Native foes, but rather the fact of his survival itself. Indeed, his ability to communicate and interact with Indians on something like an equal footing plays an important role in his survival.
If some historians have portrayed the frontier as a zone of adaptation and exchange, other scholars have portrayed it as a realm prone to explosions of bloody conflict. From this perspective, the frontier was not a place where cultures overlapped and blended, but a place where they collided and ground against each other like tectonic plates. For many frontier whites, familiarity with Indians bred contempt rather than accommodation. They had no use for Natives, nor for the easterners who stood in the way of extirpating them. The work of Peter Silver, David Andrew Nichols, Patrick Griffin, Brendan Lindsey, and Ned Blackhawk reminds us how prevalent this “Indianophobia” could become. Historical representatives of the Indian-hating westerner would be men such as the Paxton Boys or the perpetrators of the slaughter of peaceful Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten. An individual example would be John Kirk, Jr., who murdered a group of Cherokees under a flag of truce to avenge the massacre of his own family at Indian hands in East Tennessee during the 1780s.
In The Revenant, the treacherous John Fitzgerald (played to chilling effect by Tom Hardy) is the archetypal Indian-hating frontiersman. He is suspicious of Glass for his past residence with the Pawnees, and is openly contemptuous of the son Glass fathered with an Indian wife. Perhaps Fitzgerald’s hatred for Indians is as personal as Kirk’s, since the kerchief he wears on his head covers the scars of a scalping he survived and can still vividly recall.
I don’t know if the filmmakers intended Glass and Fitzgerald to stand in for these two contrasting types of frontiersman, the cultural hybrid and the Indian-hater. But the degree to which the characters reflect the varied ways whites dealt with the frontier and its Indian inhabitants suggests a greater degree of historical sensibility than we usually get from Hollywood. In any case, I recommend you see the movie for yourself.