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The Revenant, Manfred, and Forgiveness

By February 19, 2016 2 Comments


I hope you’ll agree there is some beauty in this image, an elegance to what Emerson called snow’s “frolic architecture,” something dazzling or graceful in its loveliness. That having been said, no one would really want to be here. It’s ten below. Even a buffalo would move south.

The Revenant is a film-making masterpiece that’s both beautiful and just plain awful to watch. It’s sheer violence is matched only by the frightful deprivation Hugh Glass endures when he drags his bloody, broken self out of pure wilderness, a place, by the way, the word Disney has absolutely no meaning. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is not for the faint of heart. Brace yourself. It’s magnificence is as compelling as it is repellent.

Like Shakespeare, Iñárritu is working with materials long ago established,, in this case among the great sagas of the American west, the story of Hugh Glass, a dying trapper left on his own by companions who understand their own lives are in jeopardy if they wait to watch, mercifully, for their companion to die. They leave.

It’s pure rags-to-riches Americana in a way, because Hugh Glass is not dead, nor will he die. It’s revenge that he breaths, revenge that gives him life. The story goes that Hugh Glass pulled himself up and away from death itself even though he had no bootstraps. Slowly, with pain that’s just as unendurable to imagine as it is to witness, he returns to the fort in search of Fitzgerald, the man who left him behind.

In origin, the myth belongs to South Dakota. Glass was mauled by a she-bear somewhere near Lemmon, but eventually fought the elements, hand over hand, all the way back to Ft. Kiowa, near Chamberlain, a 200-mile trek. Iñárritu chooses to set it in the Canadian Rockies, which only makes the suffering more profound–and without a doubt more profoundly beautiful.

That’s the material Iñárritu is bending and shaping in The Revenant, the myth many have repeated, retold, rewritten.

The power of the story–of the myth itself–is that at its climax it refuses to deliver what it promises all along. Call it what you will–retribution, spite, anger, hate–what gives Hugh Glass life is not simply a refusal to die but a gorging thirst for revenge that never happens. When he finds Fitzgerald, he doesn’t kill him. That unforgettable end is what keeps the story alive.

If Hugh Glass murdered the man who left him for dead, storytellers of the American West would not have retold the story that created the myth. Had Hugh Glass simply put a gun to Fitzgerald’s temple, no one would have been surprised and the story wouldn’t have been mythologized. That he doesn’t is the shock that lifts the story into the level of what’s unimaginable.

Frederick Manfred took a shot himself at the Hugh Glass story and wrote Lord Grizzily, his rendition of the tale, published in 1954 and nominated for a National Book Award. Lord Grizzly has probably outsold all of the other Manfred novels combined. It’s one of five he called his “Buckskin Man Tales,” stories of the Northern Plains where he lived, the place he loved.

Fred Manfred’s real name was Feike Feikema. He was born somewhere around Doon, Iowa. He loved his father but worshiped his mother, Alice Van Engen, a deeply religious woman born and reared in the Christian Reformed Church, who made sure her precocious oldest son got a good Christian education. That’s why, in the 1920s, she sent him off to Calvin College. 

It is fair to say that his people, his tribe, “received him not,” a rejection that sometimes pained him. Once upon a time, Manfred told me that he couldn’t understand why it was that the men and women he grew up with had such faint toleration for his work, when the most famous novel he’d ever written was really all about forgiveness, the central thrust of orthodox Christianity. Manfred’s problems with the community of his youth and childhood is a fascinating topic, but what’s interesting about that statement in the shadow of The Revenant is his assessment of the Hugh Glass story–“it’s all about forgiveness.”

Iñárritu thinks so too, but he changes motivations, even hypes the revenge by giving Glass a son, Hawk, by way of a Native wife, a son who is with him because Glass’s dearly beloved wife was murdered in a massacre. Iñárritu plays with the myth the way Shakespeare played with the story of Hamlet, King of Denmark. 

Before the trek that made Glass famous, Fitzgerald murders Hawk in this new telling, which makes Glass’s motivation in The Revenant something greater than revenge. His son’s death reshapes the cause into a desire for justice in the American frontier, where there are no courts of law. If the score that needs to be settled is a matter of justice, then forgiveness is really of little importance, which makes Manfred’s assessment of the shape of the Hugh Glass story irrelevant.

That’s a shame. Whether or not Manfred is right isn’t the point. We’re all free to alter the shape of the Hugh Glass story because it belongs to American mythology. But I think it’s fair to point out that the reshaping which Iñárritu has given us in this simply incredible film does make the story more Hollywood and, if Manfred was right, less, well, divine.

There are distractions in this film, a film that will create untold dissertations in film schools, I’m sure. Iñárritu risks melodrama now and then. It’s as if he can’t stop himself. The horror and deprivation is so painfully acute that he would like to think he has no limits. At some moments near the end, the story gets a little heavy-handed, even preposterous. The horror of the story doesn’t need embellishment.

Another distraction is the amazement an audience can’t help but feel about how on earth the movie was shot. Iñárritu was committed to natural light; therefore, frequently the crew could shoot only when the light was there–and there, in this case, is wilderness areas so remote you wonder if any other human beings have ever been even close. Reportedly, crew members quit in droves when they were forced to live in those conditions. When you watch this film, you have to stop once in a while and just shake your head at how it was done.

And then there is the myth itself. One of the reasons Shakespeare’s audience found his Hamlet so interesting, or so say the scholars, is that they already knew the story; what interested them was how the playwright would tell it. I really loved watching this telling of the Hugh Glass story unfold, loved watching it play the myth itself.

My wife didn’t go, wouldn’t, and I don’t blame her. The Revenant spares nothing, soft-pedals nothing, refuses to restrain itself. It is a magnificent film. Its already taken home a number of big awards, including Best Picture from the Golden Globes. There will be more, I’m sure.  Watch for it to overpower the competition next week in the Oscars.

But The Revenant is not easy to watch. It’s brutal and unceasing, it revels in beauty that’s difficult to see. It’s a brutal masterpiece, an amazing rendition of a grueling, bloody story we’ve enjoyed hearing for more than a century, but is really difficult to see.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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