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01/25/2016 10:06 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

Tarantino and Iñárritu Recreate Wilderness Epic in 'The Hateful Eight' and 'The Revenant'

Tarantino and Iñárritu Recreate Wilderness Epic in The Hateful Eight and The Revenant.

By Jonah Raskin
I.

Two blockbuster movies from 2015 -- Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight and Alejandro G. Iñárritu's The Revenant -- ride roughshod over territory that might look mighty familiar to moviegoers reared on Hollywood westerns. Indeed, bot movies reconfigure frontier landscapes and recycle iconic figures born of the wilderness, even as they refract contemporary narratives about terror, greed, hate and violence.

The Hateful Eight -- a noir western with a vile femme fatale and an African American devil -- is set in Wyoming, but was filmed in Colorado. The Revenant, a recast adventure story, takes place West of the Mississippi, but was filmed largely in British Columbia and Argentina. These days it's harder and harder for directors to find real wilderness to use as the backdrop for westerns and in films about the clash of cultures.

Blood flows freely in The Hateful Eight as one would expect from Tarantino, who carved up the screen and then let it bleed in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). One might also expect rivers of blood from Iñárritu, the Mexican-born director who made his cinematic mark with 21 Grams (2003), which stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro.

At the beginning and at the end of The Hateful Eight, Tarantino depicts a carving of Jesus covered with ice and snow, as though to say that God is dead, perhaps frozen to death. Iñárritu reveals the shell of a church with the crucifixion in ruins, as though to warn viewers not to expect spiritual guidance from organized religion.

The Hateful Eight traces the trajectory of a rag-tail group of desperados driven by love of money and bound by no moral principles. The Revenant depicts a solitary frontiersman who triumphs over hateful men and wild beasts. He's almost too indomitable to be believed, though he's reminiscent of the archetype of the wounded samurai who heals his wounds and remakes himself as a warrior of steel, a role played to perfection by the veteran Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune.

At the end of Iñárritu's epic, Hugh Glass -- played with real grit by Leonardo DiCaprio -- sits alone in the cold and ice and snow. Mission impossible accomplished, but he has no home to return to and no headquarters where he can retreat and regroup. The son to whom he was devoted has been murdered, his beloved Indian wife massacred by soldiers and his own commanding officer shot and killed.

Glass belongs nowhere, neither with the American fur traders he guides through the wilderness, nor with the Indians determined to resist the invaders, protect their own tribes and hold on to their shrinking patch of the earth. The Roy Orbison song, "Won't Be Many Coming Home" which plays at the end of The Hateful Eight, might also sound at the end of The Revenant, though Iñárritu isn't as eager as Tarantino to spell out the message of his film.
DiCaprio's Hugh Glass looks and sounds every inch a frontier hero. After all, he means to endure everything and everybody who comes his way, by any means necessary, even as he maintains his unwritten code of honor. As film critic Manohla Dargis noted, he's "a figure straight out of American myth and history."

The middle portion of the movie turns into a kind of manual for how to survive in the wild: eat anything that moves; make sure to drink plenty of fresh water; build a fire and keep warm; use the skins and the bodies of animals; and get plenty of rest. Egregiously wronged -- he's tossed into a grave and covered with dirt while he's still alive -- by an evil fur trapper named John Fitzgerald, (played by Tom Hardy), Glass literally rises from the dead.

In a sense, he's a Christ on the frontier, though he's a pagan rather than a Christian Christ; he knees at the cross of the living tree. A master of the wilderness, he become one with it and is literally saved by the trees in the woods that can seem like so many enemies lying in wait, ready to assault invaders.

II.

James Fenimore Cooper, a literary gentleman from old New York and the father of the American wilderness novel, would probably recognize Iñárritu's treatment of frontier death and resurrection, along with his characters, French as well as Americans. The Revenant takes place in the 1820s, the decade when Cooper began to write about the wilderness, at first when he lived in New York and later in Paris where he behaved like an aristocrat and extolled that mythical creature, the noble savage.

Indeed, The Revenant draws on Cooper's six-related Leatherstocking novels and on the contours of its main character, Natty Bumppo, whom the nineteenth-century French novelist, Honore Balzac, praised as "a magnificent moral hermaphrodite, born of the savage state and of civilization."

The similarities between Cooper and Iñárritu are too striking to attribute to mere happenstance, though no one has a copyright on the frontier and the wilderness. Cooper borrowed much of his material from Sir Walter Scott, who wrote about the Scottish border in his own early nineteenth-century romances.

The Revenant nods again and again in Cooper's direction. One of the characters is named "Hawk"; "Hawkeye" is one of Bumppo's aliases. A man of many identities, he's also known as "the pathfinder" and "the deerslayer." Another character in the film is named "Boone."
The real life Daniel Boone carved out the Wilderness Road that led from Virginia to Kentucky and paved the way for pioneers. Boone lived briefly with Indians and rescued his own daughter from Indian captivity. In The Revenant, a group of Indians on horseback search for an Indian woman kidnapped by whites, held as a prisoner and then raped by French fur traders, a scene that stands out in the movie.

Cooper used the story of kidnapped and rescued females again and again, especially in The Last of the Mohicans (1826), which was made into a movie most recently in 1992 and that starred Daniel Day Lewis as the pathfinder.

Like Bumppo, Glass crosses the frontier and moves freely from the world of the "palefaces" to the world of the "redskins," as Cooper dubbed them. Bumppo and Glass are both guerrilla warriors and both are expert trackers and hunters. They both know how to fire a rifle and how to attack with an Indian tomahawk.

Like Bumppo, Glass speaks fluent English and can converse with Indians in their own languages. From his Indian wife, Glass has learned the spiritual wisdom that enables him to withstand storms and weather adversity.

Cooper might enjoy the violence on the screen, though he might well complain that the picture depicts the palefaces as killers who are as bloodthirsty as the redskins. And he might object to the genuine friendship that develops between Glass and a wandering Indian who has lost his way and his tribe. Granted, Cooper gives Bumppo a companion in the wilderness: an Indian scout named Chingachgook. Bumppo and Chingachgook share the same grub and the same love for the great outdoors, but they aren't exactly equals or even friends.

Cooper might find Iñárritu's work blasphemous, though it seems likely that he'd be on the edge of his seat throughout the movie, and especially as Glass tracks his foe through the wilderness, then decoys him and watches him die as a tribe of Indians watches in silence and does nothing to interfere. That's how Natty Bumppo would have worked his revenge.

Cooper might not know what to make of Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, though the director can be as dark and pessimistic as Cooper was 175 years ago. A Calvinist underneath his romantic head, Cooper observes at the end of The Deerslayer (1841), the last novel in the Leatherstocking series, that, "the history of crime is ever revolting" and that "we live in a world of transgressions and selfishness." That's Tarantino's world, too.

III.

The main characters in The Hateful Eight emerge, scene-by-scene, as deformed, grotesque and disgusting. Tarantino peels away layers of civilization and exposes the savagery under the surface.

He doesn't seem to have worked specifically with Cooper's myths in mind, though his movie offers parallels with nearly half-a-dozens films, including John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) -- albeit without the role of the Ringo Kid made famous by John Wayne -- and Archie Mayo's The Petrified Forest (1936) that starred Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee, a killer who holds half-a-dozen folks hostage. There is no kid of any kind in The Hateful Eight.

Tarantino also evokes Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), which explores the violent aftermath of the Civil War. Moreover, he recycles bits and pieces from his own body of work, including Pulp Fiction (1994) and Inglourious Basterds (2009).

In his review of The Hateful Eight that appeared in The New York Times, critic A.O. Scott kindly called the director "a scholar of old movies." Indeed, Tarantino's creativity seems to have given way to cinematic scholarship and self-mimicry.

Label Tarantino a cinematic racist and a misogynist who allows his fictional characters to use and abuse the words "n*****" and "bitch" in The Hateful Eight. Still, one might also call him loyal to the actors -- Samuel Jackson, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, for example -- he has worked with time and again and who reappear in his latest film.

Indeed, part of the enjoyment of the film is watching the members of the ensemble as they act and interact with one another, first aboard a stagecoach and then inside a store on the edge of the frontier where mayhem and madness destroy any semblance of civilization.

While Mayo offers one desperate killer in The Petrified Forest, Tarantino offers a whole gang of them, led by a woman named Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, along with two bounty hunters -- one white, the other African-American -- plus officers of the law and survivors of the Civil War, including a confederate general played by Bruce Dern wearing a white beard.

There are no Indian characters in The Hateful Eight and no immigrants from Europe, though Tarantino obviously means to offer a cross-section of American society after the Civil War and to show that the fratricidal conflict spilled over into the West and that contrary to popular belief no one really won the war or the west.

Iñárritu would probably find The Hateful Eight too grim, too dark and pessimistic for his own taste. Tarantino would probably dismiss Iñárritu's spirituality, his idealization of the American Indian, and his attachment to the kind of frontier heroism that scorns judges, courtrooms and defense attorneys. Still, Tarantino might enjoy the ending of the film that celebrates the kind of frontier justice that Oswaldo Mobray, a wandering Englishman played by Tim Roth, extolls in The Hateful Eight.

That sort of justice still obtains in the wilderness of American towns and cities, from Ferguson to Philadelphia, where policeman still call African Americans the same racial epithet that Tarantino's characters hurl indiscriminately across the screen.

Jonah Raskin is the author of A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature.