The Revenant has some things going for it. For one, the cinematography is beautiful. Tom Hardy proves, yet again, he has acting chops. Leonardo DiCaprio, after much grunting and groaning over the years to get an Oscar, gets a role where he literally grunts and groans his way the whole movie to achieve the allusive gold (really, I want to see the script). The script itself is fine and there are great, dramatic moments throughout, but on the whole it needed editing (over two and a half hours long). What irritated me most, though, was the eye-rolling, ahistoric, cliché moralism of the film.
Yes, it is the historian in me that is annoyed, but it isn’t over presentism (see every Ridley Scott movie) or pedantic historical inaccuracies. Rather, what irks me is the Zinnian tripe in which the white man is the invading oppressor and the red man is the oppressed (not the first time I’ve gone after Zinn the “historian”). Granted, Zinn presents a fun and simplistic morality tale and as with most morality tales there is a kernel of truth, but in the end, it is just that: a tale, which as expected, has sparked equally obnoxious right wing backlashes. It is a truism among historians that bringing politics into the study of history leads to bad history. And bad history begets more bad history, which, not surprisingly, worms its way into our films. I had hoped a skilled director would have handled the topic with more care, but alas.
Simply put, the West has no monopoly on violence and oppression, and the tired narrative that it ruined an idyllic paradise is fantasy.
Jacques Barzun, in his magisterial work From Dawn to Decadence, acknowledges the West’s abuses in their conquest of the New World. But he keeps it in context: first, the Spanish crown and Catholic priests strove to curb abuses in their colonies. Second, human nature: “At any time, neither Gold nor Glory is a respecter of persons, and Gospel occasionally sins; together they do their worst when the scene is vast and sparsely populated, when communication is slow and policing haphazard” (Barzun 100). Here we find the subtlety that a Zinnian has no time for. People are capable of great good and evil and often both currents mix together.
And this reality applies to the natives themselves. Barzun points out:
The Caribs who Columbus first encountered had fought and displaced the Arawaks who occupied the islands. The Aztecs whom Cortez conquered had originally descended from the north and destroyed the previous civilization. To the north and east many of the tribes lived in perpetual warfare, the strong exploiting the weak, and several—notably the Iroquois—had slaves.
Zinn’s account is more than an airbrushing and substantially less interesting: “These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing.” What Zinn doesn’t tell you is that Columbus crashed a party in full swing: the aggressively expansionist Caribs were eating (quite literally) their way through the Arawaks when the white guys showed up.
Barzun’s point is not spiteful, neener-neener history. His concern is primarily to clarify the truth and thereby humanize the natives. Like their Western counterparts, they were capable of good and evil. And by even Zinnian standards, the evil could be incredibly heinous (cannibalism, seriously?). Oddly enough (or not so odd if you’ve managed to claw out of the Zinnian bubble), in some instances, the natives looked upon the Spaniards as saviors or used them opportunistically for their own gain (imagine that, scheming natives using foreigners to kill other natives: see Spaniards vs. Aztecs). Fluidity, moral ambiguity, power politics drive the story, not a simplistic moral dichotomy. And this is life: “In short,” Barzun concludes, “what happened on the new-found hemisphere in early modern times continued the practice of the old…Everywhere the story is one of invasion, killing, rape, and plunder and occupation of the land that belonged to the vanquished” (Barzun 101). The Europeans did not upset a utopia. They merely joined the slaughter. They just happened to be better at it.
To The Revenant‘s credit, it does not wholly fall down the Zinnian rabbit hole. Granted, the oppressor-oppressed matrix is present, but there are your average Joe’s who are just trying to make a living for their families while living according to a Western moral code (not surprisingly, one such character gets scalped). This nuance is appreciated, but there is a missed opportunity here: Dicaprio’s character comes across a native who explains that the Sioux had wiped out his family. It is a line that is wholly overwhelmed by the narrative thrust of the rest of the movie but it’s worth highlighting.
World’s of War Collide: The West vs. The Americas
Barzun makes a general point about the interactions between the Europeans and natives. Daniel Boorstin in his book The Americans: The Colonial Experience considers more specifically the interactions between Europeans and the natives in North America. Not surprisingly, Zinn and his cohorts, in their haste to smear the white men who created the system that allows them to complain in the first place, skate over the ugliness of pre-European North America.
After the religious bloodbaths of the 16th and early 17th centuries, Boorstin notes that Europe tempered its ways. By mutual agreement, the monarchs of Europe cooled their religious passions, accepted the new post-Reformation religious arrangement, and set about fighting their wars in accordance with national interest and under the auspice of rules and regulations created to limit the slaughter. Professional armies came to dominate the scene and the people became relatively insulated from armed conflict. The career soldiers, brushing shoulders with colleagues on the other side during peacetime, would handle the fighting. War, in short, became a pan-European gentleman’s sport: “Commanders would no more have undertaken a battle in thick underbrush or woods, at night, or in bad weather, than a modern professional baseball team would consent to play in dense woods on a wet day.” From this world emerged the English settlers. What they found in the new world shocked and changed them.
The natives of North America played by a different set of rules, if one could even call them rules:
The American Indian who lay in wait for the earliest colonists had, unfortunately, not read Grotius or Vattel [authors of the rules of war in Europe]. He had no international aristocracy, nor was he persuaded of the advantages of limited warfare that was waged only during clear weather in open fields. He had his own weapons and his own ways, the ways of the forest… When the Indian captured an enemy he not obey Grotius’ laws of war by taking prisoners and seeking to exchange them. On the contrary, massacre and torture were his rule; he thought nothing of flaying his enemy or bleeding him to death with jabs of pointed sticks.
And there was a reason for this:
The Indian kills indiscriminately. His object is the total extermination of his enemies. Children are victims of his vengeance, because, if males, they may hereafter become warriors, or if females, they may become mothers. Even the fetal state is criminal in his view.
In all fairness, when you descend into the abyss of total war, slaughtering children makes perfect sense (If the Second World War taught us anything, it is this). European settlers quickly came face to face with John Locke’s “State of Nature” and realized they didn’t like it that much but had no choice. Conflicts escalated quickly. Zinn, of course, has no problem pointing out Puritan murders, he completely ignores the context (something that The Revenant at least nods too). This is not to say that the natives had it coming to them or that the Puritans were justified in their slaughters, but it is to say that the clash between West and natives had dire and bloody consequences intimately tied up with local circumstances that pre-dated the arrival of the Europeans.
Consider: A Puritan man, escaping persecution in England and looking for a new life for his family, could easily find himself caught in a trade war between the natives and his English brethren. You better believe he’s going to fight to the last bullet. And no, compared to the stealthy native with a bow and hatchet, a slow firing musket is not the deciding factor in the conflict.
The outcome of the fight was never a forgone conclusion. In the moment, it is kill or be killed. All that you think about is yourself, your family, and your folk, just like the other guy is. War on the frontier constituted a literal defense of hearth and home. Every American (native and colonial) had to be a fighter to survive, because the foe was merciless and considering the culture clash, wars necessarily became wars of extermination. Tales of frontier women hatcheting raiding natives were commonplace. Here humanity is dragged down to the lowest, most violent common denominator. All the civilized tendencies of the West–diplomacy, formalism, and rules–were quickly lost in the dark of the woods.
The attempt, then, to retroactively charge settlers with crimes against humanity and then jam them into the victim and victimizer categories is an ex post facto judgement that fails to acknowledge the immediate need for survival confronting both parties and their shared, unknown future. Neither side knew who would win, and that’s why they fought. The colonist and native blended together in a desperate struggle for survival.
Folks like Zinn have little time for the complexity and humanity of the men and women caught up in the bloody struggle. Instead these “historians” habitually project 21st century mores onto the past and resort to simplistic morality tales that distort more than they illuminate. Ironically, barbarism can only be understood in contrast to civilization, and in this case, it is Europe, not the natives that advanced the idea of “civilized war.”
Unfortunately for the natives, they waged total war, but there are none better at total war than Europeans once you get their ire up. The high-handed moralism of the Zinnians, then, collapses. They hate the barbaric West for winning, but by their own standards they should equally hate the barbarism of the native population. The difference is that the West’s bloody and devastating victories are followed by relative peace and prosperity.
Perhaps a more cynical reading lies in the offing. From Robert E. Howard: “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” Disagreed, to a point. Barbarism is the natural state of mankind in so far as no one is able to harness bloody power to forage an enduring political order. The West has proven the ability to wage war in brute fashion and set up lasting political institutions: therein lies the primary difference between them and the natives. Zinn should have thanked his lucky stars he lived in a nation that allowed him to piss away time complaining about the violence that foraged the peace he so blindly enjoyed. Talk about irony. The Revenant, likewise, benefits from the enduring order created out of the chaos of the frontier. If only it had more a sense of the tragic and an appreciation for how a good deal of ugliness made the world we enjoy today.
None of this is to say that the ends justify the means. It is to say that one ought to avoid being a self-righteous hypocrite.