Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant offers an aesthetically exquisite and beautifully grotesque portrayal of colonization in 19th-century North America. It is a bleak and devastating film that focuses on the efforts of real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) to avenge the killing of his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) by fur trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). The Revenant is simultaneously difficult to watch and hard to turn away from. It is as haunting as it is unrelenting.
Yet, while The Revenant is riveting, it is far from unproblematic. The film is being rightly criticised for its dangerous working conditions during production, for its failure to offer a compelling revenge narrative, and for its colonialist and patriarchal portrayal of Indigenous peoples. As many Indigenous reviewers have pointed out, it really is a white saviour film redux.
The Revenant is a deeply flawed film, to be sure, and I do not wish to defend it. The aim of this review is different, however. I argue that despite its many problems, The Revenant is useful for leftists to discuss because it offers an all-too-rare representation of the bloody origins of capitalism in North America. While the Fraser Institute begs to differ, Iñárritu himself recently stated in an interview: “This is the seed, for me, of the capitalism that we live in now.” Thus, critical consideration of the film can spark important dialogue about colonialism’s (ongoing) relationship to capitalist accumulation, which has mostly been a blind spot on the left.
Those familiar with the writings of Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, and more recently Ellen Meiksins Woods, David Harvey, Vivek Chibber, and Glen Sean Coulthard, will know, of course, that capitalism is not a “natural” economic system, nor did it come about simply as a peaceful result of miserliness or frugality, as some simplistically believe. The origins of capitalism are far from “idyllic.” Instead, capitalism, in Europe, North America, and elsewhere, was actually brought about through the forced destruction of Indigenous and peasant economies, or the separating of original producers from their lands by the violent coercive means of theft, robbery, and enslavement. Marx called these the “chief moments” of so-called primitive accumulation; Harvey calls these different forms of “accumulation by dispossession.” Coulthard, I think, as an Indigenous scholar, would suggest that we see these moments as part of the ongoing process of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession. Regardless of terminology, the bloody and brutal origins of capitalism in colonial dispossession are on full display in The Revenant and thus the film merits critical consideration from a socialist perspective.
While most reviews of The Revenant have focused on “revenge” as the central engine of the film, the drive for profit is its real catalyst.
The Revenant’s backdrop is the ruthless material realities of the mercantile capitalist frontier of 1820s America, with traders exchanging commodities of a capitalist mode of production, such as blankets, cooking utensils, guns etc., for Indigenous economic products like furs. The film opens with a group of Rocky Mountain Fur Company traders, which the character of Glass, as the story’s protagonist, is supposed to guide back to the nearest fort, gathering beaver pelts and discarding the animals’ unused carcasses. Far from trapping for subsistence, it is clear that the company is harvesting pelts in bulk for the purposes of trade and profit. When the group is suddenly ambushed by a band of Arikara (aka “Ree”) led by Elk Dog (Duane Howard), Glass helps the company to close ranks, protect the pelts, and escape down the river in an armoured vessel.
Having sustained heavy losses in the conflict, the traders, reluctantly, decide to stash the heavy pelts and trek overland to the fort to try recruit more workers to try to return for the pelts. As the potential loss of payment for the furs sets in, one trader, John Fitzgerald, becomes agitated, blaming Glass for failing to warn the company against the Arikara attack. Fitzgerald’s character is the embodiment of Albert Memmi’s “the colonizer who accepts,” as someone who degrades Indigenous peoples (Fitzgerald calls them “Tree Niggers” and, ironically, “thieves”) and seeks to use the colonial project for his personal profit.
As the company makes the long trek back to the fort, Glass is mauled by a grizzly bear. As he clings to life, the company attempts to carry him on a makeshift stretcher before the officer, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), appoints two men to stay behind with Glass and his son Hawk while the group continues to the fort. Fitzgerald is lured to stay behind to tend to Glass by the promise of extra money offered to him by Captain Henry. Within a few days, and sensing a profitable opportunity, Fitzgerald decides to kill Hawk and leave Glass for dead to return to the fort to collect his fee. Glass, however, manages to survive and miraculously makes it back to the fort where he plots his revenge. For his part, Captain Henry aides Glass in an effort to recoup money that Fitzgerald stole from the company. The driving force of The Revenant, then, is the merciless and exploitative nature of mercantile capitalism which shapes the actions of the film’s white characters.
…By Colonial Dispossession
In The Revenant, colonial dispossession directly fuels capitalist accumulation. After the opening scene, it becomes clear that the Arikara, like many other Indigenous groups in the 19th century, are dealing with the consequences of being displaced by increased colonization. Their access to traditional territories is being cut off and their subsistence economies disrupted by the activities of trappers such as those associated with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Moreover, it is revealed that Elk Dog’s daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o) was stolen by a raiding group of Europeans and that the Arikara’s ambush the Rocky Mountain Fur Company’s camp was executed with hopes of finding her.
After the attack, the Arikara come across a group of French fur traders, assumed rivals of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. They are also ruthless traders. The Arikara reluctantly engage in trade with them to procure the needed resources, specifically horses, to help them in their pursuit of Glass and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company men who they think may still be holding Powaqa captive. Elk Dog, though, grows frustrated with the hard bargaining of Toussaint (Fabrice Adde), the French company’s leader.
After Toussaint insults Elk Dog by suggesting he will only pay half for the beaver pelts the Arikara “stole” from their raid on the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, the Indigenous leader retorts: “You all have stolen everything from us. Everything! The land. The animals.” Toussaint cannot argue and he reluctantly trades five horses. Elk Dog’s declaration cuts to the very heart of colonial dispossession; for the Arikara the land and its resources are not commodities. Instead, the land is a relationship that sustains Indigenous lifeways, lifeways increasingly coming under attack by invading colonists bent on exploiting the land for capitalistic gain.
The devastation of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession, however, is most powerfully represented in one of Glass’s dream sequences. As Glass struggles to survive after being left for dead by Fitzgerald, he is helped by Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud), a lone Pawnee whose family had been slaughtered by invading colonists. In one of the most haunting scenes in the film, Hikuc offers Glass raw meat from a buffalo separated from its herd and killed by a pack of wolves at night. Then, in a dream, Glass has a vision where he stumbles across a giant pile of buffalo skulls. This scene recreates the infamous photo of buffalo skulls often used to symbolize the purposeful extermination of the buffalo by whites to disrupt Indigenous subsistence economies, dispossess the land, and establish capitalist property relations. The dream sequence thus points to the horrifying consequences of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession for Indigenous peoples in North America.
Overall, despite its many flaws, The Revenant provides a popular portrayal of the bloody birth of capitalism that can potentially spark critical conversations about the nature of capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession in the past and present. Such dialogue is necessary for challenging capitalism as a “natural” and “just” economic system and for creating stronger connections between anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements today.
Sean Carleton is a member of the CD collective and historian of colonialism and capitalism at Trent University, Anishinaabe Territory.