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Moral Clarity in The Revenant
Tuesday, 12 January 2016 - 5:00pm
While my role at the Manning Centre focuses on municipal issues, after seeing The Revenant this past weekend I felt readers of this blog might appreciate a quick review on the film and my perspective on the underlying philosophical messages in the film.
In short, go see The Revenant. It’s a memorable film not for Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance nor for the stark Albertan scenery, but rather for the moral clarity of its ultimate message.
The Revenant is, as its title conveys, an exploration into revenge and justice. While it is set in the early 1800’s American frontier of Montana and South Dakota, parallels must be drawn to the formative conditions of Western Canada.
The movie’s premise is that DiCaprio, fictionalizing mortally-wounded fur trapper Hugh Glass, is left for dead and if his prospects are not already bleak, he watches as his son is murdered before his eyes by the film’s antagonist Fitzgerald. The remainder of the film recounts Glass’s odds-defying struggle through the wilderness to exact revenge.
The film ends with a strong moral message – Glass stares blankly into the cold winter scene – finding that there was no ultimate redemption or justice at the conclusion of his undertaking to see Fitzgerald killed.
Glass should have sought forgiveness but he had no other recourse as there was no effective system of law and order in the American frontier – the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and other outfits that had de facto authority in the rugged frontier were interested in profit above all else – paying little heed to true justice.
While the movie was set in 1832 in lands bought in the Louisiana Purchase, the Albertan filming location raises questions about our own frontier. The first European settler in the Calgary area was John Glenn in 1873. He settled near what is now Fish Creek Park in the City’s South East. The 1875 arrival of the North West Mounted Police, at the conclusion of their dramatic march over 1,000km at Fort Brisebois (now Fort Calgary) marked a seminal transition in the North American frontier: the rule of law.
Where south of the 49th parallel delivered the ‘Wild West’ into popular culture, Canada’s experience was far more democratic and egalitarian.
The fictional Glass could have chosen the virtuous path of forgiveness (which is purportedly what the real life Glass did). His pursuit of Fitzgerald was not redemptive -- perhaps he already knew that there would be no personal justice in revenge but lacking any legal recourse he decided to do it anyway.
In watching The Revenant we are reminded of the hardships faced by early settlers. Accordingly, as Albertans, we should celebrate our own tradition of rule of law on the frontier.