FEBRUARY 16, 2016
A GROWLING BEAR plays a starring role in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826). It isn’t the real thing, just the hero Hawk-eye (or Natty Bumppo) in a bear suit. Still, the impersonation is so alarmingly lifelike that some reassurance is needed, even to Hawk-eye’s own companion. “[I am] a man like yourself,” he says, “one whose blood is as little tainted by the cross of a bear as your own.” A harmless enough quip, although tainted blood, in any other form, would have been no joke. This is a novel, after all, in which three of the main characters die, the very three who might have produced mixed-race offspring: Cora Munro, already racially suspect because of a possibly mulatto mother, and Magua and Uncas, two Indian men aspiring to her hand. The death of these three, and especially the death of Uncas, the titular last Mohican, means that this tribe, and perhaps the world as a whole, would end as it began, pure and unsullied. For Cooper, there’s no better last word.
A growling bear also plays a starring role in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. This one isn’t the real thing either; it’s a CGI creation. Oddly, this simulated bear is also responsible for an extended meditation on race-mixing, occasioned by a death not unlike those wrapping up The Last of the Mohicans. But, by making the novel’s concluding act its own starting point, the film produces the plot equivalent of a shot-reverse-shot, telling the story from the other side, making Cooper’s last word not quite the last.
Based in part on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same title, The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a real-life trapper and scout living in the High Plains in the 1820s, with more than a passing resemblance to Cooper’s Hawk-eye. His claim to fame, however, rests on his gruesome encounter with a grizzly, graphically depicted at the film’s start. The bear doesn’t manage to finish him off, but it does produce a collateral casualty, one that sets into motion a chain of events that take up the rest of the film. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is paid to sit out the end with the badly mauled Glass and tries to hasten his last breath by artificially inducing it. Glass’s young son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), in a futile attempt to protect his father, ends up dying in his place. Happening off-screen, like all the other important killings in The Revenant, the drama of Hawk’s execution is not the point here. What the film dwells on instead is what comes after it, events both willed and unwilled that refuse to concede to its finality. Hawk’s death is a narrative motor in one sense — fueling Glass’s revenge plot — but in another sense it does mark a dead end, a point of no return as decisive as any. With his passing, a form of futurity, bearing all that remains of a once-happy life, comes to naught. This is what torments Glass, what festers in him and induces a relentless determination to live on, to wrest from the world some acknowledgment of what he has lost. Beginning with his prolonged vigil by the side of his son’s frozen body, followed by his long and improbable road to revenge, this is a film about making a sequel out of an ending.
Like Cooper’s Cora Munro, Hawk is a half-breed: the child of Glass and his Pawnee wife, who was killed during a US army raid. The epithet never appears in the film, for good reason, though it does appear with some frequency in Cooper, notably in The Prairie (1827), the third of the Leatherstocking Tales, coming immediately after The Last of the Mohicans. In that novel, after a character’s offhand remark that the “half-and-halfs […] are altogether more barbarous than the real savage,” Cooper felt called upon to add a footnote: “Half-breeds: men born of Indian women by White fathers. This race has much of the depravity of civilization without the virtues of the savage.” That was pretty much a general sentiment … Iñárritu clearly has other ideas.
The word doesn’t come up in The Revenant for the simple reason that the phenomenon is not even recognized to exist. A High Plains version of the one-drop rule means that there’s no such thing as a half-and-half: Hawk doesn’t even have the protection afforded by that term. Fitzgerald wouldn’t have killed him quite so casually if he did. Even to other Indians — here the fiercely independent Arikara — coming upon his body, he is simply a “Pawnee boy.”
Glass, a realist, has always known that this would be the case. In a telling exchange, Hawk says, “They whites don’t hear your voice!” To which Glass answers: “They just see the color of your face.” Blanket racialization seems to rest on the absolute primacy of the eye in the Plains. Glass himself, though, does not seem to see quite this way. If anything, his world is only half visual; the other half is auditory, and the former is what it is only because of the latter. What he sees is always mediated by the ear, by an auditory memory more intimate and persistent than any spectacle that happens to be before him.
After all, the voice of his dead wife has never been absent from his head. The intonation of her words, “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight,” is his own. It’s almost as if Iñárritu has taken Cooper’s Hawk-eye and reassembled his biography, giving him a wife but then taking her away, giving him a son but then also taking him away. The now wifeless and childless Glass is almost like Cooper’s celibate hero, but with a difference, writ large in the partial transfer of that name, from Hawk-eye to the now dead Hawk. All that is left from that imperfect transfer is the bereaved eye: a mode of existence unique to the sole surviving member of this family. Outliving both his son and his wife, Glass has become a “half-and-half” himself, a spectral embodiment of miscegenation, but rendered so not by fear, as in Cooper, but rather by his losses, with two crucial parts of himself cut off. Missing those that he’s no longer able to see, he holds onto them only through the remembered words that he now repeats himself, accessing the world through the ear as much as the eye for just that reason.
This is arguably The Revenant’s greatest achievement: turning a derogatory term into an existential condition yielding a new visual field. Complementing and qualifying the film’s spectacular vistas is a mode of seeing far more subdued: spare, deliberately unemotional, almost impersonal — the observational style of a bereaved eye. This is how Glass looks at the body of his son. It’s how he looks at the body of the Pawnee man who threw him a dead bison’s liver when he was starving and tended to his infected wounds, now hanging from a tree with a scrawled sign supplied by French traders: “on est tous des sauvages.” And, at the very end of the film, prostrate after the fight-to-the-death with Fitzgerald, this is how he sees the Arikara, especially Powaqa, the girl he has recently saved from rape, now on horseback, proud and noble and uncommunicative, passing out of his life, though not without some acknowledgment of what he’s done. For a brief moment, through a pair of eyes schooled by remembered voices, the mixed-race future so feared by Cooper returns as an animating force.
Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University. She has published widely on American literature of every period, and is best known for Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (2007).