Let me start with the following: this post is late. If you follow me on Twitter, you might recall that I promised to write this particular blog post on 18 February. Things got busy, so the post got pushed back. My apologies.
If you have no clue what I’m talking about, let me catch you up. I’m currently teaching a third-year undergraduate course called “Booms and Busts in North American History” at the University of Maine. The course examines natural resource development and the broader commodification of nature in the geographical area now referred to as North America from the 16th century to the present. You should also note that I’m new to the History Department, having just started last January, so enrollment in Booms and Busts was low, with a final tally of seven students, all male. And with a 75-minute discussion meeting scheduled for every other week, I’m constantly trying to think of interesting ways to engage a small group of men, all of whom are around the age of 20, in a dialogue about the past exploitation of resources for more than an hour.
(Side note – I’ve discovered that college students in the United States, at least the ones I’ve encountered, are REALLY intrigued by the whole concept of the Canadian Heritage Minutes, even when they involve fish.)
In early February, I suddenly had what I thought was a brilliant idea. We had just covered the fur trade in Booms and Busts, and some of the students had asked questions about The Revenant, which was then in theatres. The backdrop for the film is the western North American fur trade in the 1820s, and I had heard from friends and colleagues that it left you with a decent sense of how difficult life could be on the “frontier,” so the students’ eagerness to discuss certain aspects of the plot got me thinking that I might be able to incorporate discussion of The Revenant into the course.
From the outset, I wanted to make sure this whole venture didn’t turn into a bunch of guys sitting in a room chatting about how awesome it was that such and such a scene went down in the way it did. Yes, that did happen to some extent, but much less than you might think. Much of the credit as to why this turned into a worthwhile academic exercise has to be given to the critical reviews that students had to read in conjunction with seeing the film, which we all agreed to go see on our own time. Stacy Nation-Knapper wrote the first one, titled “The Revenant is Beautiful, Disappointing Art,” for ActiveHistory.ca, while the other was written by Sean Carleton, titled “The Bloody History of Accumulation by Dispossession,” for Canadian Dimension. Both reviews are solid scholarly pieces of writing, and complement one another really well, each approaching the critical analysis of the film in a different manner.
When I put together the discussion reading list, I made a point to assign Nation-Knapper’s review as the first one that students should turn to after watching The Revenant. She does a great job of describing the film as art, highlighting how its artistic merits can contribute to the viewer’s understanding of the past:
The cinematography is breathtaking and breaks the fourth wall in alarming ways that draw the viewer into the cold, the fear, and the violence of the setting. Actors’ breaths fog the lens when they strain in the cold, their blood splatters the screen as their bodies are brutally mangled, water splashes the camera as Glass [Leonardo DiCaprio’s character] is swept over a waterfall, and the final scene leaves the audience with Glass staring and panting directly into the camera. The film is gory, much like life in the early nineteenth-century fur trade…
This is the sort of thing I had in mind when I initially came up with the assignment: use the film to give students some sense of the harsh realities of the fur trade. And yet, as Nation-Knapper notes, “The Revenant is not history.” Although inspired by some true events that are part of what is now the legend of Hugh Glass, “the filmmakers made disappointing choices of appropriation and sensationalistic excess.” Nation-Knapper skillfully deconstructs many of the film’s historical inaccuracies, so I won’t get into them here. What this allowed for, though, was an in-class discussion about the role of historical fiction. A few students believed that historical films should be accurate as possible, while others argued that some artistic licence with past events is fine if it means that more people will be exposed to historical content.
Another topic that Nation-Knapper tackles head on is that of Indigenous appropriation. As she wisely concludes, “It’s perfectly acceptable to tell stories about the fantastical exploits of dead white men without appropriating the very real lives and experiences of Indigenous people or insulting Indigenous histories by ignoring or altering them to embellish non-Indigenous tales.” This opened up a whole new avenue of discussion, in which we covered a range of subject matter, from past and current portrayals of Indigenous people in film to the controversy over sports teams inappropriately adopting Indigenous images or culture.
Like Nation-Knapper, Carleton appreciates the “grotesque” beauty of The Revenant, and he finds aspects of the film to be deeply problematic. As he observes,
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.
But for Carleton, the release of The Revenant also represents opportunity, “because it offers an all-too-rare representation of the bloody origins of capitalism in North America…[and] can spark important dialogue about colonialism’s (ongoing) relationship to capitalist accumulation…”
Perhaps more than any other aspect of this academic exercise, this was the part that I was most pleased with in terms of how it worked out. From when I first constructed the Booms and Busts course, I’ve always conceptualized it as an examination of the effects of the commodification of nature in North America over the last few hundred years, of how the arrival of capitalism to this continent’s shores dramatically changed the historical trajectories of various human and natural processes. Viewing The Revenant, coupled with Carleton’s critical reading of the film, provided students with a different and possibly more immediate way of understanding much of what I had been droning on about since the beginning of the semester. While that outcome was not entirely on my radar when I created the assignment, it was a well-appreciated addition. For the same meeting, students also had to read Alfred W. Crosby’s classic article on “ecological imperialism,” and so what followed was a vigorous discussion about connections between resource exploitation and settler colonialism.
As you can see, incorporating The Revenant into my Booms and Busts course generated discussion about a wide variety of subjects. Yes, we did talk some about this or that awesome scene, but the vast majority of the time was spent engaged in serious academic debate. I encourage others to give it a try. Believe me, if this exercise can keep my seven guys talking for more than hour, it should prove useful for just about anybody.