Not for the Faint-Hearted: 'The Revenant'

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The Revenant is not for the faint hearted as the bloody and brutal violence constantly spews across the big screen like a horrific nightmare. The ambience of the opening scene is cloudy and dark, giving viewers a sense of eeriness, stirring up feelings of terror and suspense.

Throughout the film the cinematography work is stunningly awesome. The amazing visual effects work, by filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, will certainly draw millions of people, all coming to bear witness, to an artistic masterpiece of potential award winning Oscar material. The dramatic scenic backdrop of the opening scene was shot on the beautiful Stoney Nakoda First Nation community nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of southern Alberta, Canada. This is the same location for several epic Hollywood productions including Legends of the Fall (Brad Pitt), Buffalo Bill and The Indians (Paul Newman), Shanghai Noon (Jackie Chan), Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman), Heaven & Earth (Kevin Costner), and The Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood).

The Revenant is based on actual events of 1823 with Leonardo Di Caprio playing Hugh Glass, a legendary fur trapper of the American frontier. Glass survives a vicious grizzly bear attack and eventually takes revenge on the man who left him for dead. Frontier justice at its finest.

What better way to capture an audiences’ attention than a good old fashion Indian attack. Works every time and sets the stage for a hero image to emerge. The Indians in this case, are the Arikcaras, who are portrayed once again by Hollywood, as the savage warriors. What the story fails to disclose is the fact that the French fur trappers were encroaching upon the traditional territory of the original people, indigenous to their homelands. Fast forward 200 years later, Indigenous Nations on both sides of the border are still demanding free, prior, and informed consent is required, before any development or extraction of resources happens on their traditional territory.

Early reviews by critics suggest The Revenant is the biggest Indian movie since “Dances with Wolves.” Indian movie? I am sorry to say but this is not an Indian movie! It’s a Mountain Man movie. Its all about Leonardo and how he survives not only a bear attack, but survives numerous Indian attacks, starvation, and the cold harsh weather in the middle of nowhere. This brings to mind another Mountain Man movie, “Jeremiah Johnston” with Robert Redford as the lead actor, who also fought off ferocious warriors who were after his scalp. In one scene of that movie, a warrior ambushes the hero, by leaping up from underneath a foot of fallen snow. How that warrior knew which spot to lie on for hours or days under falling snow makes it unbelievable. In The Revenant, in a similar scenario, Hugh Glass shoots a warrior off a tree who just happened to climb 30 feet up the tree in the middle of the trappers’ camp. Why a warrior would climb up a tree to become a shooting target is beyond me. So once again Indian warriors are depicted as sneaky, cunning, and devious warriors who know how to take an advantageous edge in warfare strategy, but as usual, the Hollywood hero has to be the better fighter. As a descendent of legendary warriors, the problem I have with this picture is….. we did not fight like that. LOL. But I guess, despite having Indigenous advisors on set, that shot had to be in the final cut. Just like John Wayne taking one shot and three attacking Indian warriors fall off their horses. This is what sells tickets at the box office and creates the big screen hero.

Another aspect of the film that stands out is the Mountain Man takes an Indian woman as a wife in a meaningful relationship. Glass’s love and respect for his wife and her human emotions is seen as a noble act. All historical accounts report Indigenous women were the only women around in the wild undiscovered frontier of the early 1800s. Several Indigenous Nations of the northern plains actually encouraged interracial marriages to seal ties of friendship, fostering stronger trade relations. The ugly side of these historical interactions was that Indigenous women were perceived as property and as helpful in bringing European influence and control onto Indigenous lands.

The manner this production depicts Indian women as sex slaves is extremely disturbing. The gross rape scene illustrates this. Then we see other Indian women casually tending to the biological needs of the foreign trappers inside the fort. It is a sad degrading reality, if you are an Indigenous person watching this film.

“Elk Dog” played by Duane Howard (Nuu-Chah-Nulth), goes on a passionate mission to find his missing daughter, “Powaqa”, played by Melaw Nakehk”o (Dene). This episode reflects modern stark realities of the current murdered and missing Indigenous women issue in Canada. One begs to ask the question? Has anything changed that much since the wild wild west?

At the gala premiere, Melaw Nakehk’o was interviewed on the red carpet where she raised the issue of murdered and missing women in Canada. She also talked about the designer dress she wore which captured the attention of the international fashion world. Her dress highlighted traditional Anishnawbe floral design work, a collaboration by Ms. Christi Belcourt (Metis) and legendary designer, Valentino.

On a more minor note, it is not historically accurate that all Indigenous women had messy, tangled, dirty, unkempt hair. Throughout history Indigenous women were taught to always neatly braid their hair to look beautiful and impeccable.

In my view, Duane Howard is the real life hero of surviving against adversity. He may not make millions out of this production, but his face tells the story of living 13 years on the streets of east side Vancouver, BC, eventually choosing to live a drug and alcohol free lifestyle.

It was calming to the mind to see a warrior, played by Arthur Redcloud (Lakota), obviously amusing himself by sticking out his tongue to catch falling snowflakes and Leonardo follows suit, in a rare moment of lightheartedness.

One of the more brilliant performances of the whole film was executed by Forrest Goodluck (Dine, Mandan, Hidatsa, Tsimshian) who played Hawk, in the role of Hugh Glass’s son. Forrest equaled the acting abilities of Leonardo and Tom Hardy as he went back and forth with both lead actors in several intense scenes.

Audiences will certainly have their fascinations about Indigenous people satisfied when they see the elderly Arikara man in the opening scene. While the warriors are looting the trappers’ camp, he glides like a ghost onto the screen, grieving the missing Powaqa in a chilling mesmerizing wail. The other First Nations actors worth mentioning for their superb performances include Grace Dove (Secwepmc) who played Glass’s wife and Issiah Tootoosis (Plains Cree) who acted as Glass’s son when he was a child.

An eagle feather headdress goes to Leonardo for his performance of overextending himself in difficult circumstances, as a gifted actor. Indian people, all over the prairies, will praise him by singing honor songs about him, for eating raw buffalo liver, considered a choice of delicacy amongst the plains people. Amongst the Plains Cree, the two greatest feats a warrior can achieve was to kill a grizzly bear and kill an enemy, in close one on one combat struggles. The great Leonardo acquired both accomplishments. Leonardo also crawls inside a dead horse to survive a cold winter storm. Hmmm, did we not see this before in “Star Wars” where Han Solo takes Luke Skywalker's sword and slices open the belly of his dead tauntaun and stuffs Luke in to warm him up and save his life? In any event, I hope Leonardo will take the moment of Oscar fame to further the causes of addressing climate change on the planet and for the protection and advancement of the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Tom Hardy, in his difficult role as the ruthless treacherous Fitzgerald, deserves an Oscar nomination, hands down, for best supporting actor.

I give the director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, a B plus for making a sincere and honest effort to showcase Indigenous authenticity in his film but he falls short of dispelling negative stereotypical images of North American Indigenous peoples, which are eurocentric in nature. We can also thank the French for labeling us as “le bon sauvage” which literally means “the good wild man” in other words the “noble savage”.

Alvin Manitopyesis a Plains Cree/Saulteaux/Assiniboine from the Muskowekwan First Nation, Treaty Four territory of Canada. He has four decades of involvement in the international environmental and Indigenous rights movements. Alvin has served for several years as a boardmember of the Dreamspeakers Indigenous Film Festival. He currently resides in Calgary, Alberta.