Oscar Winner, “Revenant” – The Nature of Frontier Morality


by Dan Stout

Revenant, based on Michael Punke‘s The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge is a multi-layered experience — and in many ways several films in one. Watch these ragged, crude frontiersmen of 1823, battling relentless cold, feuding about whose in charge, and weighing human life against animal pelt profits. Evoking Michael Polan’s idea that humans are not in control nor the center of the universe, it’s darkly pleasurable to observe these jesters assuming the role of king, as nature, steady and constant, reduces them to small players in the grand scheme.

“Revenant” means returning person, and in French, a reappearing ghost. In life, people, alive or dead, keep coming back to us. This can bring great joy or, in some cases, haunt us to our demise as in the case of revenge. Revenant reminds us that significant people fade away, but inevitably reappear. On the frontier, some are prepared for this moment while others meet their demise; it may be a ghost or person of the flesh, but we all come face-to-face with unfinished business. Thus Revenant is both a revenge film and a reflection on life’s un-mended affairs.

One such revenant is Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose native-American wife is killed by white men, leaving him to carry on with his son, Hawk, who is looked upon skeptically by the other trappers. Conversely, Hugh, is dubious of his cohorts, any of which may have murdered his wife; they carry the banner of “survival of the fittest” at the expense of friendship and family bonds. This is no more apparent when the Powaqa Tribe kills 30 men in their party, leaving a handful of survivors fleeing over the mountain to a fort and safety. Sarcastically, a backwoodsman inquires of Hugh, “What keeps you out here on the edge?” to which he simply responds, “I like the quiet.”


Things are anything but quiet when Hugh is attacked by a grizzly bear in an animal-human brawl unequaled in any movie seen by this reviewer. Hugh is mangled, bitten in the back, and injured internally before he kills his attacker with a Bowie knife. His son Hawk vows to stay and pray with him, and Captain Andrew Henry pays antagonist, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) to care for him until medical help arrives. Fitzgerald quips, “I ain’t got no life, just livin’ everyday.” [Spoiler alert until notified in text] Fitzgerald immediately murders Hawk and buries Hugh alive, claiming they froze to death. A shallowed-soul peasant, Fitzgerald joins the others at the fort, reporting the passing of his companions. Paid his wages, he moves on.

Miraculously, Hugh survives. Unearthing himself from the grave, he kills a horse, disembowels it of internal organs and crawls into the bloody carcass to escape a raging blizzard. Using the animal’s warm blood and organs to quell hyperthermia is practiced in many cultures. (This scene is reminiscent of Jack London’s short story, To Build a Fire where a trapper in the Yukon country attempts to kill his dog to slip his frostbitten hands into the canine’s blood-hot insides.)

The climactic scene arrives when Hugh, the revenant, tracks down Fitzgerald for the face-to-face encounter. “You came all this way just for revenge,” he asks Hugh. “Well, enjoy it, because it ain’t gonna bring your boy back.” To this, and we’ll not give away the climactic moment, Hugh evokes God on how to proceed.

Given Mormonism’s frontier history, Revenant reopens historical debates about revenge in the religious context. Devout pioneers crossed the plains at tremendous sacrifice; they established a base in Salt Lake City that enabled a worldwide church to spring from there.

revenant 1Likewise, not all Mormon pioneers crossed the plains with the best of intentions. According to Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, some Nauvoo settlers were motivated primarily by steady pay, possibly the reason groups of Saints went on to California for the gold rush. Mormon settlements in southern Utah yielded vigilante groups; many poor immigrants anticipated revenants from Illinois and Missouri to take revenge on them. When wagon trains crossed Utah territory, most remained peaceful, letting them pass. Others, including John D. Lee, Isaac C. Haight, William H. Dame, John M. Higbee, and Phillip Klinginsmith, played a role in the tragic massacre of 120 women, men, as reported in the book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard.

There was hysteria about imminent war and poor communication between settlements. This incident recalls many of the questions raised in Revenant: What is it about life on the frontier that provokes fear and aversion to other communities? Is revenge morally justified? The Mountain Meadows Massacre has turned out to be a revenant for those unwilling to confront the nature of the deed. As in the French derivation of the word, it is a ghost that returns until we achieve inner peace.

Few of us live on a wilderness frontier, but the story of Revenant is largely about how retain our values when there are few people around to police them. Sooner or later we all find ourselves in such situations.


Images for northern montana frontier maps

Revenant is rated “R” for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity. 


2 thoughts on “Oscar Winner, “Revenant” – The Nature of Frontier Morality”

  1. “…these jesters assuming the role of king, as nature, steady and constant, reduces them to small players in the grand scheme.” Well said, Dan. Excellent piece; I enjoyed it!


    1. Well said, Ed, from the popular culture master of all wisdom. We’ve tricked ourselves that we’re in command. I think of the example of the Irish potato blight when we tried to reduce all of the root’s species, to just one. Look what Nature did in response?


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