The Revenant and Heroes

Hugh Glass gobbles up a raw fish; he bites into a piece of still warm raw bison liver and vomits right into it; a grizzly bear rips his flesh, leaving his bones visible; he pulls out the entrails of a dead horse and then snuggles into the carcass to keep himself warm. There are steep falls; animals and men torn to the barest. 

Here are a few random thoughts on The Revenant, in no way a review or even an analysis.

I usually wince when there is any violence, overt or covert. I shut my eyes for a few minutes. While watching The Revenant, I did not. There could be two explanations, both worrying: Either I have become immune to such scenes or the violence in the film is gratuitous, a sort of play-acting between big hunters and hunted with their positions alternating. 

The former reason may be ruled out, for I subsequently noticed that I continue to be squeamish even while watching National Geographic. But I am also not quite ready to dismiss the film’s bludgeoning aggression to gratuitousness simply because of Jim Bridger. 

Bridger and his demons

Jim Bridger and his face. A face registering pain, anger, loyalty, pusillanimity, and guilt. A face held together by wisps of gossamer that seem to have been jaded in the weather to give it a certain ruggedness. A face that can break. A face that deserves to be punched one minute and caressed the very next.

I did not know who the actor was. (Will Poulter, it turns out.) I have the advantage of distance — distance from Hollywood, even as trivia. In fact, it is only after watching the film that I got to know it is loosely based on a real story. Therefore, for all the difficulties a film crew faced, we realise that the reality must have been far worse. Yet, my appreciation of the film increased with this knowledge, for it could then be seen as a tribute to a period of hardship, of struggle, and of man and beast fighting for the same space and becoming like each other. 

Even in the much talked about skirmish with the bear scene, and despite the fact that after a couple of minutes of relentless assault it becomes a pantomime, the questions stand out: Was Glass pushing his animalistic limits or was the bear fighting for her humane space in protecting her cubs? 

The demarcation between man and beast is often blurred, and the moral queries are as much the animal’s as the human’s. Hugh Glass finding shelter in the carcass of a horse has a Pieta-like resonance; it is more familial than his relationship with his son, Hawk. For, the latter comes with the strings of fealty. Glass is concerned about co-traveller and opponent John Fitzgerald [Tom Hardy] killing Hawk, “because he was all I had”. Whereas the horse, belonging to another camp, helps him escape, proving to be useful even in death. 

Hugh Glass carries his son Hawk

Digression: I can imagine how in a Bollywood film, the hero would have named the horse Raja or Shera and the steed would have even shed a tear in the last moments! Perhaps I am replaying all this in my mind without the melodrama, although The Revenant has many moments of melodrama and of stylised pauses.

Leonard DiCaprio said in an interview:

They’re [Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] very specific about their shots and what they want to achieve, and that — compounded with the fact that we were in an all-natural environment, succumbing to whatever nature gave us — was something that became more of a profoundly intense chapter of our lives than we ever thought it was going to be. It’s epic poetry, an existential journey through nature, and this man finding a will to live against all odds. Yet he changes, nature changes him and I think those elements changed him while we were doing the movie.

Glass’s pursuit of living is more than about survival for exacting revenge. He wants to live to be heroic. Part of the reason may have nothing to do with being left to the elements. It could be Hollywood. I do not keep count of awards. I have not watched enough DiCaprio films to be a fan. Exultations like, “Leo owned the Oscars” do not impress me. But, the first thought that came to my mind as The Revenant opened was indeed, “So Leo owned the Oscars?” 

The Revenant has several layers that will be visible only after the Hollywood star mask is scraped off. I am not an actor or one who even understands the intricacies of the craft. What I do know is that one should see the character, and not the actor, much less the star. 

Some critics have pointed out that Fitzgerald stands against Glass because he is a racist and cannot imagine why a white man would have married a Pawnee woman and then felt so protective about his half-Native son. But, while he does sound racist (explained as his own experience of being partially scalped by one), Fitzgerald is as much a fighter as Glass in the survival sense. He has plans for the future — despite the tortuous journey ahead, he wants to carry a heavy burden of pelts that they worked to get and that would be profitable. He agrees to stay back with a badly wounded and almost dead Glass who he’d prefer dead only because he is promised $300; it will buy him a home. He is the Ordinary Guy who makes an immobile and directionless Glass seem extraordinary. 

Fizgerald and Glass confront each other

Towards the end, when Fitzgerald is finally dying, Glass pushes him upstream to meet his fate. Heroic Glass does not take the responsibility to kill him for killing his son; he leaves it to god,  a lesson we are told he learned from the Native American who had nursed him for a bit, which again shows he has not learned too many lessons himself. His version of god seems to be the Arikara on the other side of the river who are certainly not going to spare Fitzgerald. Makes one wonder about Glass and his moral prism. 

Glass has no motive except to mourn for the fact that he has nothing to live for anymore, instead of finding a reason to live. Even the young Bridger, perhaps the youngest in the team, takes the risk to stay behind with someone who might die any minute. Bridger is a hero because he sees duty as beyond doing a job, and when he does leave Glass, he not only leaves behind his canteen but also an image of a caring person who is not so much saving his own life as preferring to stay away from witnessing one who he admires give up on life.

In the end, does Glass give up? He looks blankly ahead and then straight at the audience. His Native wife* floats in and out of his dreams with aphoristic fervour telling him that in a storm if you look at the branches you will see them bend but the trunk will not. Glass has internalised this, but then so does everyone else who is not yet dead. 


* Grace Dove who played the role of his wife tweeted: "Not gonna lie... Pretty bummed I didn't get an invite to the #Oscars."

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