Dominique Brégent-Heald is an associate professor of history at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her articles have appeared in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, American Review of Canadian Studies, Western Historical Quarterly, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, and Journal of American Culture. She is the author of Borderland Films: American Cinema, Mexico, and Canada during the Progressive Era (November 2015).
With awards season well underway, The Revenant, nominated for twelve Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, seems poised to upset such early frontrunners as Spotlight and The Big Short. While these two latter films—a journalism drama concerning child sex abuse and cover ups in the Catholic Church and a black comedy based on the housing crisis of 2008—are timely in scope and feel, The Revenant is an epic Western. Released around the same time as Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, it appears as though the Western, which film critic Andre Bazin once called the American film par excellence, is enjoying a resurgence in Hollywood. Certainly, the Western is a genre that has seemingly died and been resurrected countless times since its demise in the 1960s; it is a tale of endurance not unlike that of the protagonist of The Revenant. Adapted from Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a character loosely based on what little we know about the real-life mountain man, who survived a grizzly bear attack in 1823 and subsequently traveled, or more accurately crawled, 300 miles to Fort Kiowa with the intention of exacting vengeance on the men who left him behind to die.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s story of survival and revenge is more than just a Western—it bears the earmarks of an early twentieth century borderland film dressed up with twenty first century gore and a CGI grizzly bear. As I argue in Borderland Films beginning around 1908 filmmakers employed the concept of borderlands to articulate notions of physical and metaphorical ‘in-between-ness,’ and to project ambivalent understandings of race, gender, and nation-ness. Whether set in the northwest or southwest, these settings convey parallel notions of contact and collision between neighboring communities and cultures while their narratives exhibit recurring characters, motifs, and themes. Iñárritu, who hails from Mexico City, has explored the themes of border crossing and deterritorialization in his previous films (most notably Babel and Biutiful), and has recently spoken out against xenophobic rhetoric directed towards Mexican migrants and Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. Not surprisingly, The Revenant also problematizes notions of political and cultural boundaries as it explores allegorical borders between peoples, life and death, spirituality and materiality.
Although not explicitly stated in the film, The Revenant unfolds along the Upper Missouri River, in present-day Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The region flirts with the 49th parallel, which has divided British North America from U.S. territory since the Treaty of 1818, though largely uncharted until the 1860s. Similar to the amorphous space of the northwest frontier, geographic boundaries are unclear in The Revenant. Filming did not take place in the Plains, but rather in mountainous northern Alberta and British Columbia, as well as Argentina. Certainly, much of the hype surrounding The Revenant concerns the hellish conditions of the remote Canadian wilderness, complete with heavy snow, icy rivers, and sub-zero temperatures. This parallels publicity campaigns surrounding Northwest melodramas of the 1910s that I discuss in Borderland Films, which similarly promoted the illusion of realism and accounts of filming in climatological extremes.
Likewise, as in borderland films of the Progressive Era, the sublime northwest landscape of The Revenant, which Emmanuel Lubzeki filmed in natural light using immersive widescreen lenses, shaped the primal instincts of its characters. Motivated by heterosexual lust, jealousy, greed, and revenge, hyper-masculine Anglo-American trappers and swarthy French-Canadian voyageurs ‘opened up’ the West at the expense of Native peoples. Indeed a key element of borderland films since the early twentieth century is that they take place in a fluid space of colonial confrontation. The American cinema of the Progressive Era constructed the temporally and geographically liminal borderlands to explore asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination.
In particular, the American cinema conspicuously featured interracial relationships between Native women and European men in its productions set in a borderland ‘contact zone,’ and also regularly include characters with mixed Indigenous and European ancestry. The Revenant similarly employs the well-worn trope of miscegenation complete with a dead ‘Indian maiden,’ ‘tragic half-breed,’ and ‘white savior’—all stock characters in borderland films since the 1910s.
Still, unlike most Westerns produced prior to Dances with Wolves (1990), The Revenant does strive for authenticity in costuming, language, and other period details. To ensure respectful representations of Indigenous peoples (Arikara, Pawnee, Sioux) that transcend the stereotype of noble/bloodthirsty Indians, the producers hired Craig Falcon, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, as a cultural advisor and employed members of First Nations communities in Alberta and British Columbia as extras and in supporting roles. Although set in the 1820s, the film speaks to present-day violence against Indigenous peoples, most notably the sub-plot of Chief Elk Dog’s kidnapped daughter Powaqa which parallels the horrors of missing and murdered First Nations women. Accepting the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama for The Revenant, DiCaprio called attention to historic dispossession and ongoing struggles of aboriginal peoples throughout the world, and advocated protecting indigenous lands from corporate interests and exploitation.
The Revenant has attracted much attention—both positive and negative from Native American and First Nations communities. Yet its critical and box office success attests to long-lasting impact of borderlands on both the American cinema and beyond since the Progressive Era. I hope that Borderland Films will shed light on the extent to which the U.S. film industry has constructed our understandings of North America’s border regions that have lasted to the present day. If I were to place any bets on the Oscar race this year, I would put my money down on The Revenant for a sweep of all the big awards.