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American Nightmares, Part I: Old Frontiers… (The Revenant/The Hateful Eight)

Trying something new. Or rather something old. Been a while since we published an old-fashioned thinkpiece on here, and been thinking a lot about America as filtered through film in 2015-2016. We’ll be publishing a series of these articles in the coming week. If you’d like to see more of this sort of content, please comment or share or facebook or tweet, so we know you like it.

The United States of America is a relatively young country.

Like all other countries, it has its own history and mythology. As with many of those countries, that history and mythology intertwine. The European settlers may have inherited some of that mythology from their ancestors across the Atlantic or appropriated some from the indigenous population, but a lot of that history and mythology was cultivated wholesale. The American Dream. Manifest Destiny. The idea that this was a wild continent to be tamed through the sheer strength of will of those rugged early settlers.

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Britain has knights. Ireland has rebels. America has cowboys. It is tempting to look upon these archetypal mythic figures as something far removed from the modern day, something so far in the distant past that they may never have existed as all. Particularly given the historical decline of the western genre in recent decades, it is easy to consider the cowboy a historical artifact covered in centuries of dust and disconnected from the modern world. Billy the Kid does not seem so far removed from King Arthur, Wyatt Earp from Brian Boru.

Of course, the reality is much more complicated. The overlap between the history and mythology is striking; these stories seemed to be mythologised before they were allowed to fad into history. The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903, and generally considered to be the first cinematic western. Although past its prime, the era of the American frontier was still in progress. Oklahoma would only become a state in 1907, with Arizona and New Mexico would become states in 1912. There is a sense that the country was still forming as the mythology coalesced.

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“No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West,” David Murdoch argues in the preface to The American West. “And having created it, America promptly and successfully exported it.” The western is very much a representation of American self-image, the cultivation of a myth of modern (white) masculinity that tells the heroic story of settlers who arrived on a new continent and bent the land to their will.

Of course, the historical record does not line up with the mythology. The suffering, the illness, the violence. The suffering inflicted upon indigenous populations was glossed over, with various Native American populations reduces to “savages” who stood in the way of the “civilisation” imported by the settlers. On a more subtle level, moral guardians ensured that the fantasy remained sanitary; gun deaths were always clean and graceful, the heroes always suitably righteous.

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The realities of early twentieth century film production meant that studios were constantly churning out content in order to fill the cinema chains they operated, producing huge volumes of film in order to ensure that their movie houses could constantly offer audiences new pleasures. In the mid-twenties, there were approximately 2,500 movies being produced every year; film production would not reach that those levels again until the mid-sixties. Real history could not compete with that volume of output.

The western came to speak to a particular idealised form of American masculinity, one that treated the vast North American continent as a wilderness to be “broken” by rugged determination. Captured on screen, actors like John Wayne came to embody a particular vision of what America should be. Through the work of directors like John Ford, the nation’s landscape was immortalised on film. These films laid a fictional history over a real geography. It was no wonder that fact and fiction began to mingle in the popular consciousness, unchallenged for so long.

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This lends the western incredible symbolic power. It is telling that the first major wave of deconstructionist westerns arrived in the sixties and seventies, with the cleancut John Wayne giving way to the rougher Clint Eastwood. The release of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy in the United States coincided with the end of the summer of love, as the American public grew increasingly anxious about the War in Vietnam and the unrest on their streets. American masculinity seemed under threat, and the western genre seemed to respond to that by becoming dirtier, meaner and nastier.

The western largely faded from view after the seventies. However, it was never entire gone. The influence of the western is still felt on a number of other genres, from science-fiction space operas to superhero films to urban thrillers. There was a brief resurgence in the nineties, with films like The Last of the Mohicans and Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven offering an (occasionally clumsy) rehabilitation and reexamination of the genre. Still, the genre was a long way from its cultural peak.

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This makes the resurgence of the genre over the past few years particularly striking. To be fair, some of this is ambient noise; there were a number of low-profile releases that came and went with little buzz, like Jane’s Got a Gun or Slow West or The Salvation or Bone Tomahawk, that could be considered to be part of the indie background scene. HBO’s Westworld seems to have been in development since the dawn of time. In their own way, each of these films and television shows hint a reworking of the classic western formula.

Jane’s Got a Gun was not the movie initially promised, trading director Lynne Ramsay for Gavin O’Connor. Nevertheless, its focus on a female protagonist distinguishes it from the standard western template. The Salvation is very much an immigrant’s tale, with its heroic (and even quasi-heroic) roles given over to European performers like Mads Mikkelsen or Eva Green, while the most prominent American in the cast is Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the bad guy. Bone Tomahawk riffs on the iconic set-up of The Searchers, but with more savagery and horror.

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In Slow West, the heroic journey of its white male protagonist across the continent to save the woman that he loves is not just unnecessary, it is ill-advised. Rather than protecting his love, who has made a life without him, the film’s young protagonist serves to bring the violence right to her. These takes suggest a subversive quality to the modern western, even those that did not get wide releases.  However, there were also a number of very high-profile cinematic releases that enjoyed considerable commercial and critical success that suggest a renewed interest in the genre.

This is most obvious with the massive success of The Revenant. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s revisionist western did phenomenally well at this year’s Academy Awards. The film earned twelve nominations, more than any other film that year. It won three Oscars, two of them notable for how unlikely they would have seemed; Alejandro Iñárritu won his second consecutive Best Director Oscar, while Leonardo DiCaprio finally managed to take home a Best Actor award. It was also the second highest grossing of the nominees, beating Mad Max: Fury Road.

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The Revenant is not the only example of a western enjoying considerable success at the Oscars. Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight had a decidedly more muted reception, earning only one win for three nominations. Nevertheless, it did secure a win for composer Ennio Morricone, himself a veteran of the western genre and one of the oldest Oscar winners ever. The film managed an impressive world-wide haul of one hundred and fifty million dollars on a budget of forty four million.

As such, it seems fair to suggest that the western genre experienced something of a resurgence over the past year or so. In many ways, this renewed interest in the western could be seen as an extension of the modern fascination with the foundational myths of America. Recent years have seen a fascination with the institution of slavery. This year saw the debut of WGN’s first scripted drama show to critical acclaim; Underground is the story of a daring slave heist that earned considerable acclaim. This year also saw a History Channel remake of the classic drama Roots.

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In terms of cinema, there is already a lot of anticipation about the slavery drama The Birth of a Nation heading into next year’s Oscar race. The title is itself alludes to D. W. Griffith’s iconic 1915 film that offers a heavily mythologised (and highly racist) account of the history of the United States of America. 12 Years A Slave took home the Best Picture Oscar in 2014. The previous year, Quentin Tarantino had wed slavery to the western with his highly subversive Django Unchained, which won the director a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

Indeed, this all plays as part of a broader cultural conversation taking place about American history and identity. It is impossible to talk about films like The Revenant or The Hateful Eight without acknowledging the renewed historical fascination with the role that slavery played in establishing the United States. There are all part of the same movement, a desire to generate conversation about a history that had long been sanitised and mythologised so that it bore no resemblance to the reality of the nation’s origin.

Life is peaceful there...

Life is peaceful there…

There is something quite striking about the westerns released in the past year or so, and how they approach what is effectively the foundational myth of the United States. Traditionally, westerns have cast the myth as romantic and nostalgic. The western typically imagines a world in which white men enjoy freedoms uninhibited and unrestricted, where they are not hemmed in by the mundane demands of peaceful coexistence or society. They bring “civilisation” to an “untamed” wilderness, but they are also given license to indulge in (righteous) violence.

What is most striking about the modern crop of westerns like The Revenant or The Hateful Eight or even Bone Tomahawk is the way that they recast that core mythology of America as something far removed from romantic fantasy. These films reimagine the origin of the United States as a horror story.


The Revenant is very much a survival film, but it is coded in the language of a horror movie. After all, even the title refers to “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.” The film is very loosely based on the very loosely “true” story of fur trapper Hugh Glass. The film naturally embellishes and twists the narrative as related by Glass, which was likely itself heavily embellished and twisted. It is a “real” legend of the “Old West”, consciously aware (and even emphasising) the gulf that exists between history and mythology.

Superficially, the film has all the trappings of a western. It focuses on a bunch of fur trappers who are promptly menaced by a bunch of Native Americans. One of these trappers gets left behind, and finds himself swearing vengeance upon the man who murdered his son. There are pistols and rifles, funny accents and military uniforms. The landscape is decorated by features of the genre, an old fort manned by tired army officers and herds of wild buffalo wandering on the plains. Any attempt to classify The Revenant as a western is easily defensible.

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However, The Revenant borrows a lot of its cinematic language from other genres, genres that seem very much at odds with the traditional fantasy of the Old West. The early attack upon the fur trappers by the Pawnee is shot in an impressive long take that feels at once like an acknowledgement of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s work on Birdman, but also a nod to the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, that attack plays like the opening of Saving Private Ryan in reverse, a mad bloody scramble for the trappers to get back on the boat and away from the land.

If The Revenant starts as a war film, it quickly morphs into something more closely resembling a horror film. Iñárritu heavily stylises his visuals, creating a landscape that seems dark and inhospitable. The cold and forsaken surroundings of The Revenant seem hostile to any new settlers, as if the American continent itself rejects these new arrivals. The winter is cold and unforgiving to the trappers; they struggle to adapt to the surroundings, while the trees provide natural camouflage for their pursuers.

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Individual sequences reinforce this sense of horror. Cinematographer Roger Deakins emphasises natural light sources, which makes the movie seem quite dark, even in the middle of the day. It builds a sense of mounting dread, as if Glass might be attacked at any moment from something lurking deep within the shadows. Iñárritu shoots the action sequences like something from a zombie movie, full of shouting and panicked running, the camera shaking and jolting as the Pawnee chase Glass.

As great a threat as the Pawnee pose, it turns out that nature is the real enemy of Hugh Glass. It is nature that pummels Glass, that breaks him, that mauls him. It is as if the continent itself attacks him. The opening sequence opens with a beautiful shot of the camera panning over pools of water and roots of trees, the perspective intentionally skewed. These roots seem so much bigger than they ultimately are, puddles appearing almost like marshes. The wilderness seems so much larger than the settlers, constantly hemmed in and trapped by a nature so much larger than themselves.

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The Revenant also acknowledges the harm caused by the European settlers to the indigenous population. Although they represent an immediate and visceral threat to Glass, the Pawnee are portrayed sympathetically. They seek to find a young woman who has been kidnapped and taken from them; they believe the trappers to be responsible. It turns out that the woman was taken by the French traders, who abuse and assault her. For a film set during the origin of the United States, The Revenant has a funereal tone.

The movie is all mist and death, with Glass dying no less than three times to be resurrected again; his first rebirth involves him clawing his way out of his own grave, his second rebirth is from the makeshift tent built by a kindly traveller, his third rebirth is from the inside of a dead horse. The Revenant suggests that death and birth are linked, focusing on the harm inflicted upon the indigenous people by the new arrivals. One of the film’s most striking visuals suggests that the nation is built upon a foundation of bones.

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In many ways, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight invite comparison. Both are high-profile westerns released close together, both are from Oscar-winning film makers. Even the look and feel of the films is similar, subverting traditional western iconography in the same sort of way. Traditionally, the western has been associated with desert and heat, the image of the rugged American frontier. The Revenant and The Hateful Eight both subvert this idea, presenting bitterly cold westerns. Snow and ice are everywhere. White dominates the frame.

Even in their particulars, the two films invite comparison. Both are strongly anti-capitalist. The Revenant repeatedly focuses on the “shares” earned by the trappers, greed serving as a primary motivation for Fitzgerald and arguably all of the settler characters. The Hateful Eight concerns bounty hunters, who literally trade in flesh for money; given the movie’s fascination with the deep wounds left by slavery, this is a very important thematic point. Even superficially, both movies pause for cute scenes in which brutalised characters catch snowflakes on their tongue.

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They are also both informed by horror cinema. Being a Quentin Tarantino film, The Hateful Eight is heavily intertextual. It is largely defined by its relationship other texts. The title relates to The Magnificent Seven, offering a particularly mean twist in its substituted adjective. The film’s soundtrack was written by Ennio Morricone, who is famed for his long and prolific involvement with the western genre. However, again, Tarantino offers something of a mean twist on that piece of western iconography.

Morricone’s score for The Hateful Eight foes not draw particularly heavily from any of his iconic western scores. Instead, the film’s soundtrack is heavily inspired by Morricone’s unused score for The Thing, the classic John Carpenter horror film. In fact, The Hateful Eight has a lot in common with The Thing. It is a movie about a bunch of people (including Kurt Russell) stranded by snow in a remote location, unwilling to trust one another. “One of these fellas ain’t who he says he is,” Russell’s character boasts at one point, a sentiment mirroring The Thing.

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The Hateful Eight is even more overtly political than The Revenant. In the lead up to the release of the film, Tarantino become embroiled in an argument with law enforcement when he marched as part of a protest against police brutality. In response, the National Association of Police Organisations called for a boycott of the film. Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, threatened Tarantino with a “surprise.” As such, it is no surprise that The Hateful Eight should feel like a pointed political film.

The basic plot of the film has the African American bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren stranded during a blizzard with a collection of eccentric characters. When haracters within The Hateful Eight refer to it as a “white hell”, it is not merely a meteorological observation. Racial tensions simmer over the course of the film, with Civil War tensions still fresh. Racial epitaphs are thrown about casually, while Warren finds himself dealing with a veteran Confederate General and a southern outlaw as the plot thickens.

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Early in the film, it is revealed that Major Marquis Warren has a letter from Abraham Lincoln. That letter is the key to his friendship with fellow bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth, who practically tears up on reading it. The Lincoln Letter is discussed at multiple points in the story, before it is eventually revealed as forgery. Warren never corresponded with Lincoln; he faked the letter. It is all an elaborate lie, a way for Warren to catch white people off-guard. John Ruth is horrified.

Warren is unapologetic. The letter is the only currency he has to get white people to respect him. “You got no idea what it’s like being a black man facin’ down America,” Warren warns Ruth. Referring to the fact that Ruth would have left him stranded in the snow but for that letter, Warren reflects, “You wanna’ know why I’d lie about something like that, white man? Got me on that stagecoach, didn’t it?” In one of the scripts more pointed lines, given the shooting of African Americans by law enforcement, Warren explains, “The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks is disarmed.”

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The Hateful Eight returns time and time again to the question of authority and violence, to the question of the state legitimises violence and how exactly it distinguishes between righteous violence and the alternative. This is most obvious in an early conversation with the man claiming to be Oswaldo Mosley, the Hangman of Little Rock. Mosley illustrates, both in his official capacity and through his philosophy, that civilised society simply seeks to legitimise violence by constructing reassuring narratives around it.

Indeed, the film returns to this idea of justified violence time and time again. When Warren finds himself in confrontation with General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers, a racist Confederate war criminal who massacred African American captives rather than recognise them as prisoners of war, Warren is not able to just shoot the man outright. So he places a gun within reach of the old man, and then goads him into grabbing it. Even though Warren carefully and meticulously stage-manages the whole exercise, it still fits the fiction of self-defense. It is still lawful.

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Similarly, The Hateful Eight is punctuated with repeated graphic violence upon the captive Daisy Domergue by John Ruth. Ruth is a man who prides himself on following the rules. He brings his bounties in alive, even though that means more work for no additional reward. Indeed, as far as most of his charges are concerned, the destination is the same; whether shot in the back by a bounty hunter or dancing at the end of a rope, the outlaw is dead. However, Ruth legitimises his violence through the hangman. And his excessive violence against Daisy is validated by her status as his prisoner.

This is the real anxiety that lies at the heart of The Hateful Eight, the fear that everything is a lie that “civilisation” is just a mythic structure that society imposes upon violence in order to render it more palatable. At one point, Warren refers to the Union uniforms worn by those African Americans slaughtered by Smithers as a “liar’s promise.” There is a deep fear running through The Hateful Eight that civilised society is a liar’s promise, nothing more than an elaborate song and dance routine with no stronger basis in fact than the so-called “Lincoln letter.”

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Indeed, The Hateful Eight is a movie fixated upon lies and performance. After all, the title is promptly revealed to be a lie. The stage coach drive, Obie, represents a ninth warm body for the first half of the film. Even after Smithers dies, there is still a ninth cast member hiding in the basement. The script is full of characters who make claims of dubious veracity. It never confirms that Warren told the truth about the fate of Smithers’ son, or that Chris Mannix is really the Sheriff of Little Rock, or whether the other fifteen members of the Domergue gang exist.

The characters seem to present themselves as actors playing roles. There is a larger-than-life quality to characters like Oswaldo Mosley and Mexican Bob that paints them as caricatures. The haberdashery in which most of the action unfolds has been carefully and meticulous stage-managed. At one stage, Smithers is discussed as a prop in an elaborate charade, an object that grants legitimacy to the ruse. Towards the end of the film, the action jumps back to before our heroes arrive at the haberdashery. The other players hide just out of sight, hugging one another before stepping into their roles.

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There is a recurring fear in both The Revenant and The Hateful Eight that America is ultimately an illusory construct, that it is something that has never actually existed in the romanticised form popularised by the western. In The Revenant, even the villainous John Fitzgerald finds himself trapped by the capitalist system. Resentful of the opportunities denied to him by his family’s poverty, he dreams of making enough to escape this life. Instead, he finds himself constantly pushed back to where he began. All his scheming, plotting and murdering, ultimately accomplishes nothing.

The ending to The Hateful Eight is just as grim, with Warren and Mannix trapped together in the haberdashery. Both are seriously wounded. Almost everybody else is dead. In the film’s final moments, the pair decide to enact the hanging sentence against Daisy, a grotesque attempt to impose some semblance of the law and order mentioned by Mosley. With the red blood stains, the blue bed sheets and the stained white of Warren’s shirt, the framing evokes the American flag. Once business is concluded, Warren reads from his fake letter. It is a lie, but a comforting lie.


“Make America great again.”

That is the rallying call for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and a phrase that seems to resonate among his base. It is such an essential part of his political campaign that Hillary Clinton felt compelled to respond to it by assuring voters that “America never stopped being great.” Both of these are predicated upon a form of nostalgia, an appeal to the “good old days.” The only major point of disagreement seems to be what happened to those “good old days.” Trump and his voters seem to believe they have gone. Hillary insists that they remain.

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Nostalgia has always been a factor of mythology. While cautionary tales serve their purpose, the belief in a glorious past helps to solidify national identity and to instil a sense of purpose. It is a form of exceptionalism, one that argues that a people or a place have been chosen and are special. It speaks to the same innate sense of purpose as “Manifest Destiny”, the belief that the North American continent was always there just waiting to be “discovered” by the European settlers that would dispossess the indigenous population.

In many ways, America is great. It is a democratic superpower that was a decisive factor in both the First and Second World Wars. It has been a reasonably reliable ally of Europe during the twentieth century, in which the continent went through a number of social and political upheavals. The United States constitution is in many ways a fine document upon which to build a society, espousing belief in the doctrine of equality and self-determination. There is power in the idea of the American Dream, no matter how difficult it might be to accomplish.

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However, it is also a nation that struggles (as many nations do) with the darker moments in its history. There is a tendency to get so swept up in the romantic and idealised mythology of the past that the practical considerations fall by the wayside. When Trump advocates to “make America great again”, he appeals to an idealised vision of America that is very much rooted in the experiences of white heterosexual males who were raised with a frontier myth that they “built” this country with their bear hands.

That idealised nostalgic paean evokes several periods of the nation’s history. There is the conformity and tranquillity of the fifties, the prosperity that followed in the wake of the Second World War as suburbia emerged and teenagers still listened to their parents. White pickets fences and rose bushes decorated small towns where everybody knew both their own place and each other’s names. There is no thought given to the experience of what it was like to be black or gay or female in that context, to harbour thoughts contrary to the prevailing attitudes.

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However, it this nostalgia also speaks to the frontier, to the point in history where America was forced from a huge wilderness into a functioning democracy through sheer grit and determination. Again, the imagination runs to cowboys and frontiersmen, living hard but honest lives laying the foundation of a nation state. Anything that is not white or male is ignored; the slaves who built the White House, the Chinese who built the railroads, the fortunes built on the back of free labour, the unchecked abuses heaped upon women and the disenfranchised.

Of course, there is a question of chronology here. Trump’s candidacy launched in July 2015. He was also considered something of a joke for most of the campaign. The possibility that Trump would be the Republican nominee was not even the unquestioned view when both The Revenant and The Hateful Eight were released. However, Trump’s candidacy did not manifest from thin air. The insurgent candidate rode a pre-existing wave of nationalist sentiment to the nomination, tapping into something that had been festering in the background for quite some time.

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The America of 2016 seems a divided country. Politics are more polarised than ever. It seems like the presidential election will be determined when the nation decides which of the two major candidates it dislikes least. There is a palpable anxiety about the possibility of civil unrest spreading. Think pieces liken the mood to that of 1968, a hugely traumatic year in the American psyche. However, none of this happened overnight. This divide did not manifest out of nowhere without any warning.

Trump’s wave of white nationalist nostalgia can in many ways be traced back to the response to the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. That should have been a moment of triumph and reconciliation for the country, but it served as a flashpoint for a certain kind of disenfranchised voter. The Tea Party quickly emerged, its name harking back to the formative myth of the United States. Donald Trump sewed the seeds of his candidacy by insinuating that Obama was not really American, that he was a foreigner, that he was secretly a Muslim.

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At the same time, racial issues simmered to the surface. The murder of Treyvon Martin, riots in Ferguson, the poisoned water in Flint that disproportionately affected African Americans. However, with these flashpoints came the realisation that none of this happened in a vacuum. The mass shooting at an African American church in South Carolina opened a much-needed debate about why the Confederate flag was still deemed socially acceptable. Many issues affecting the modern African American community are rooted in centuries of systemic prejudice and abuse.

This is itself a recurring image in both The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, the idea that the United States might be tainted by some horrific original sin and forced to return to the same traumas time and time and time again. This is most obvious in the structuring of The Revenant, where characters seem to move in circles around one another. The film’s geography makes no sense, as the trappers and the Pawnee and Glass and the French seem to collide repeatedly like marbles dancing across a floor. They seem trapped in one another’s orbit, destined to cross over.

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In The Hateful Eight, the trauma of slavery and the Civil War is reenacted again and again. When Ruth picks up Mannix, Warren is forced to put on chains. Mannix is a former “marauder” and known criminal, while Warren is a reliable bounty hunter who has shared a meal with Ruth. However, Mannix is white and privileged, so Warren is forced to put on chains. Although obviously a criminal and not a slave, Daisy is kept in bondage and denied her humanity by Ruth. At one point, she sings a sad song about convicts sent over to Australia; the parallels abound.

When tensions mount in the haberdashery, it falls to Mosley to strike a balance; perhaps because he is from another continent, perhaps because he claims to represent lawful authority and has a card to prove it. In order to maintain the peace, Mosley divides the haberdashery in twain. “We divide Minnie’s in half,” he boasts. “The Northern side and The Southern Side.” The old divide remains. There is no reconciliation. There is no meaningful reconstruction. In the interest of political expedience, the institutions are not challenged or torn down.

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That is the truth the nestles at the heart of the revisionist westerns The Revenant and The Hateful Eight. Perhaps America was never as great as the myths would suggest. Perhaps there was always something horrifying lurking at the heart of the nation.

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8 Responses

  1. Very Interesting article on why Westerns seem to be on the upswing in popularity again.
    Maybe, it’s because I am an old movie fan, but I feel as Westerns do not get the credit they deserve. I feel that the reason westerns died out was because movies began to be allowed to do more when it came to social issues. Until the 1960s, however, most movies were purely entertainment with the exception of Westerns. For example, High Noon and Silver Lode addressed McCarthyism, and the Ox-Bow Incident addressed mob mentality. If these films were not westerns I doubt the censors would have allowed them to be made. You mention that “The western largely faded from view after the seventies,” well isn’t that considered one of the greatest eras for intellectual film-making, so who would need westerns to address the social problems of the world if films set in the present are already doing so. Films seem to be once again be becoming spectacle and purely entertainment, so perhaps that is why Westerns are increasing in popularity. Viewers will always be fascinated by something that is recognizable to their lives, but inverted. It is the reason Science Fiction has endured.
    I don’t think it is a coincidence that Gene L. Coon, one of the architects of Star Trek, started out as working in Westerns. His Bonanza episode, “The Paiute War” shares many similarities with his Star Trek episode, “Errand of Mercy.” In both cases two sides are preparing to go into a destructive war simply because of mutual distrust and hatred.

    • Never watched Bonanza. Worth looking into?

      That’s a fair point about the decline of the western overlapping with the so-called “golden age” of auteur cinema. I hadn’t quite twigged the connection, but I think there’s something to it.

      • Well, as long as you have the right expectations Bonanza is somewhat enjoyable. It is not high art, but sometimes it is more adult than one would expect, and the guest stars are often quite good. Interestingly enough, another episode that Gene L. Coon wrote, “The Ape,” guest starred Leonard Nimoy as a cowardly scumbag.

      • Yep. It sounds like it might be worth cherry picking a few episodes, if I can find a streaming service hosting them.

  2. “Bone Tomahawk” would fit into your theory as well. It’s grim and raw – and again has some horror movie conventions – but it’s very good and quite original, even when marked against the more mainstream Westerns you mention. Great piece of writing and you made me think.

  3. Very interesting review.

    I’ve always been a bit sceptical of the idea of the revisionist Western to be honest. It seemed to draw far more of a hard line than actually existed between the more kind of traditional Western – after all The Searchers, High Noon or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance hardly exist in some utopian uncomplicated setting.

    Obviously the genre HAS become more diverse in its treatment of race especially but at the same time I wonder if a lot of the modern ‘subversive’ trend is an appeal to a form of ‘anti-nostalgia’ – the desire to imagine oneself far more radical and iconoclastic than one really is.

    • That’s an interesting observation about the iconoclasticism. (It’s a word, I swear!) Every generation wants to believe that they are pioneers, so you do end up downplaying the more radical elements of what came before, to an extent.

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