As a child I felt the call of the wild. Jack London’s book sat on my bedroom bookshelf and every so often I would take and read. Or rather, I would drink it in, as I did all of my favorite books, living moment by moment Buck’s eerie transformation from favored pet in sunny Santa Clara to wolf fiend of the Arctic. Why did I love the tale? Its cruelty held no charms for me, but its stark beauty captivated me.
One day my friends and I found a small, hurt animal – mouse, bird, I no longer remember what. When one girl wanted to rescue it I spoke frostily of the law of club and fang until she protested, “Well . . . jeepers!” That gentle “jeepers” sank its fangs into my soul. Why would a Christian girl love The Call of the Wild? I decided I had overdosed on wolfish creatures (“They were savages, all of them . . . ”) and read London no more.
This past Christmastide I heard an NPR review of Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant and knew that I had to see it. I had a professional motive, besides. As a history professor specializing in the early nineteenth century, I did not want to be mauled by a student who had seen this film when I had not. So, one fine Friday before the spring semester hit, I took myself to see The Revenant.
Iñárritu’s rendition of the legend of Hugh Glass (ca. 1780 – ca. 1833) is as gorgeous, blood-drenched and compelling as you have heard, all 156 minutes of it. It is also reasonably historical in filling in some of the many blanks. We do not know whether Glass married a Native American woman but he may well have. Many of mountain men did, learning the language of their wives and becoming part Indian by osmosis. Yes, the Pawnee also engaged in a bitter and ultimately losing war against their rivals, the Sioux. Yes, French Canadians were among the mountain men competing with the Americans for the lucrative fur trade. And, yes, the historical Glass was mauled by a grizzly bear in 1823 while serving with a brigade of trappers led by Andrew Henry. According to one of the earliest accounts, two trappers who may have been named Fitzgerald and Bridger volunteered to remain with him until he died but instead abandoned him, giving him ample motive to seek revenge apart from the fictional murder of a fictional son. Glass’s wrestling match with a grizzly, his stubborn refusal to die, and his dogged pursuit of his betrayers made him a legend in his own time. Is any saga more gripping than a tale of vengeance?
Still, how can a Christian girl love a tale of vengeance and violence, even set in the breathtaking winter of the Rockies? The jeering placard posted by a group of French traders after a particularly brutal act chills the bones: On est tous les sauvages.” (We are all savages.) The cruelty of this movie tempts the viewer to desolation like that expressed in a melancholy Pawnee prayer: “I know not if the voice of man can reach the sky; I know not if the almighty one will hear if I pray.”
The Revenant, however, is not ultimately about vengeance. Its theme is sacrificial love and it conveys scriptural truths, for the most part without recourse to words. Early in the film the camera focuses on a camp fire, then follows the sparks as they fly toward the tree tops. (How many viewers recognize the reference to Job 5:7?) Glass and his son console each other in the ruins of a church, under the broken image of a crucifix. As Glass makes his way toward safety, a ruthless Providence attends him. Creature after creature dies so that he can live. Throughout the film the stream of violence is punctuated by startling acts of generosity that give the lie to the hideous French placard. Even the grizzly attacks only because Glass is threatening her cubs. She pays for her attack with her life.
Perhaps the grizzly attack on Glass is an awful remedy for a far more awful malady. The healing motif in this movie is as stark as vengeance. Glass’s Pawnee wife has died before the story line begins but her spirit is with him in his ordeals and she would have known of the bear medicine of the Plains Indians. “While you breathe, you fight,” she tells her husband (hence his labored breathing over the course of the film). Only Tirawa, the supreme god of the Pawnee, breathes freely. He lives in the height of heaven but his breath descends effortlessly in a straight line into the hearts of his children. Receiving it, the Pawnee worshiper can say, “I now know that Tirawa hearkens unto man’s prayer; I know that only good has come, my children, to you.”[i]
Iñárritu, then, has plunged us into a savage wilderness where every breath is jagged, but rather than drowning us in the savagery, he has baptized it. Like Flannery O’Connor, he finds grace in the grotesque. The Spirit descends like a dove.
As for me, I have purchased a new copy of The Call of the Wild and have placed it once again on my bookshelf.
[i] With thanks to Paul Radin, “Monotheism Among American Indians,” in Teachings from the American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy, eds. Dennis and Barbara Tedlock (1975).