Film Eye: The Revenant

Notes on cinema inspired by historical images by Dan Williams


1. The Revenant and a bear

A film widely talked about in recent weeks is The Revenant on account of admiration for the film’s style, but also a major issue has been the gory content. The director Iñárritu and his team, including Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer on Gravity must take a lot of credit for the way this work rewrites the Western genre, bringing a different look which is more earthy, natural and primitive than films of the classical Hollywood period. At the same time, the story has the elements of classic revenge drama, echoing stories from Ancient times. The story begins some time in the 1820s when a group of white fur trappers are attacked by a tribe of Indians, but progresses from this to concentrate on the travails of one of the fur trappers in their escape, including the scene where he is savaged by a bear.

Various images from our collection can be associated with powerful images in the film. To start with we have an image of a bear. As the film critic Mark Kermode’s review of The Revenant told us, punning on the stage direction in Shakespeare’s A Winter Tale, ‘Exit Di Caprio, pursued by bear.’ The bear of The Revenant is critical to the storyline and the scene of the attack horrific and memorable. In this film, humans and the environment carry an equal threat. Critics have discussed how the bear in this film was created through CGI and an actor, thus contributing to the history of bear representations. In the image below we are reminded that the bear could be a potent medium for entertainment and fearful fascination in Ancient Rome.

Image No. TN7F348-DX AAA Collection Bear fighting, Utica, Roman mosaic, Bardo Museum, Tunisia ©C M Dixon/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Image No. TN7F348-DX AAA Collection
Bear fighting, Utica, Roman mosaic, Bardo Museum, Tunisia
©C M Dixon/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

 


2. The Revenant, North American Indian culture and a bear

The Revenant is all about survival but also how the main character Hugh Glass (Leonardo Di Caprio) relates to the Red Indian culture. He remembers the murder of his wife, a native Indian and travels with his son, Hawk who is treated terribly because of his Indian identity. The film depicts different Indian cultures and Di Caprio’ s character is shown to have superior knowledge of the environment compared to the other whites because of his close relationship to Native American culture. Our picture below shows how awareness of bears featured in the cultural representations created by Native Americans.

Image No. US14J4-DX AAA Collection Native American chief's blanket with bear design, Tlingit Tribe, Pacific North West, ©C M Dixon/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Image No. US14J4-DX AAA Collection
Native American chief’s blanket with bear design, Tlingit Tribe, Pacific North West
©C M Dixon/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

 


3. The Revenant and Native American Tribes

The film refers to some differences between Native American tribes. For instance, the initial attack on the fur trappers is launched by Arikara Indians, and later Glass meets an Indian from the Pawnee tribe who says that his wife was killed by Sioux Indians. This attention to different tribes is an informative theme which could have been developed much further. The portrait below raises questions about how Native Americans were represented. The picture below conveys pride through status and creates a parallel with the portraiture in White American culture.

Image No. US19EC37 AAA Collection American Indian Sioux Chief's wife and Papoose, 19th cent. USA ©Ancient Art & Architecture Collection Ltd

Image No. US19EC37 AAA Collection
American Indian Sioux Chief’s wife and Papoose, 19th cent.,USA
©Ancient Art & Architecture Collection Ltd

 


4. The Revenant and storytelling

The aesthetic of The Revenant is essentially a combination of action and landscape, the elements of the classical Western but reworked through the original imagery and camerawork. As already stated it conveys a classical story of revenge, a movement through time governed by emotional motivation, the quest for revenge. The film combines the formulaic elements of such a story with lines like ‘we did what we had to do’ and ‘I ain’t afraid to die’ , although the submersion of dialogue under action adds a realistic lack of distinctness to many lines.

But where is the story told from? It is crucial that we are closest to Glass, his suffering and survival, and positioned to hate John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) his sadistic, ruthless antagonist. This focus of the narrative provides the perspective. When we enter the consciousness of other characters it is all the more vivid because we leave Glass’s view point, and yet his perspective is one of stoic silence which combines with the aesthetic of startling imagery, including the motif of looking at the sky and the startling images of bulging eyes.

The debate about the film fastens, to an extent, on the paradox that this is entertainment but excruciatingly concerned with a documentary sense of pain. It aims to hold the audience, as in the picture below, but the troubadours are absent, lost in the mists of legend and in the particular aesthetic of absent presence afforded by cinema with its technologically mediated voice. We should keep thinking about storytelling in its variations because this is crucial to issues of representations. In a recent cultural event in London, a concert by Baaba Maal at the Southbank, contemporaneous with the exhibition of The Revenant in London cinemas, it was striking to see Maal include in his line up an elderly man who he described as ‘a griot’, meaning storyteller. This man played a key vocal part in the performance as well as being honoured by Maal for his former role as an inspiring teacher. This reminds me of the first film made by a black African, Borom Sarret in which the truck driver of the title is temporarily captivated by the griot’s performance, and as others noted the film offers a transition from oral storytelling to the medium of film. Perhaps The Revenant could also have benefitted from greater reference to Native American traditions of storytelling, but even so these are evoked in the contemplation of landscape and danger.

Image No. E13EB38-PR AAA Collection Troubadors of the 12th-13th c. singing and reciting poetry, Coloured engraving ©Prisma/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Image No. E13EB38-PR AAA Collection
Troubadors of the 12th-13th c. singing and reciting
poetry, Coloured engraving
©Prisma/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

 


News!
Dan’s new film study class ‘Introduction to British Cinema’ will start at WEA from the New Year (2017).
The course is for everyone with an interest in cinema who would like to study the subject in greater depth.
https://enrolonline.wea.org.uk/Online/2016/CourseInfo.aspx?r=C2418766