All Commentary
Friday, January 22, 2016

The Revenant and the Value of Human Life

Fur, murder, and civilization in the West

If The Revenant gets the Oscar (it’s up for Best Picture), we might anticipate a serious return of fur as an item of fashion  and controversy.

Throughout the film, most of the men wear it. It’s not from Saks or Bloomingdales, but pelts gathered from the Wild West. The year is 1823, and the setting is Wyoming and South Dakota  unsettled, freezing, and insanely dangerous from both man and nature.

The physical conditions featured in the movie are beyond belief. Movies can’t yet impart the feeling of what it is like to freeze thankfully, I watched this in a warm theater, sitting in a leather recliner while drinking wine and eating a Caesar salad — but the cinematography alone somehow brings you close.

When the protagonist, who is freezing to death, manages to put on a gigantic bear pelt, and wear it by creating a hole for his head, the viewer feels his relief. On the verge of dying from the cold, he cuts open his dead horse, empties the insides, and sleeps in it for the night. Or maybe it is several nights.

The most memorable scene involves a close-up account of a bear attack. Here we have the Academy Award material. The filmmakers report that they didn’t want the bear to seem angry or vicious. They just wanted it to behave the way a bear behaves when protecting cubs, a device which turns out to intensify the drama.

How did they know what a bear attack is like? They came across footage of a real bear attack at a zoo in Germany and examined its movements and rhythms. They used hi-tech methods to make it as real as possible. The results are simply jaw dropping. The detail is captivating, such as watching the bear’s breath freeze in the air as it leaves its snout.

The Value of Fur

In the times pictured, furs are not luxury goods but rather a necessity — at least for the hunters and traders in this dangerous land. It’s what they wear to stay alive. It’s their livelihood, too. In fact, fur (and the leather to which it is attached) is more valuable than human life. It is universally used for clothing, and, as time went on, to satisfy the rising demand for fashionable hats in the cities and large population centers. (One reason we don’t care much about hats anymore: we are indoors most of the time, with central heating.)

The whole purpose of the dangerous expedition was to gather as much as possible and to haul it back to the base to be transported and sold. At one point, one of the trappers mentions that they are carrying a fortune in pelts. The economic history of the fur trade in these years seems to confirm the authenticity of the claim.

The Value of Life

In the course of the film, many people die. Death is greeted with alarming indifference. The natives who are killing the fur trappers have no regard for lives of the invading poachers. The trappers themselves lose more than half the men in their expedition, and there is a spooky absence of feeling. Their main concern is to grab the pelts, carry them away, and get as far from danger as possible.

In fact, the main plot device not a spoiler; it’s all in the trailer involves a wounded man left for dead because it became too much of a bother to drag him around on a stretcher. Incredibly, he survives and comes back to exact revenge. In the course of his struggle, he has to live off the land, eating raw buffalo, catching fish with his hands, sealing his own wounds with gunpowder, and so on.

What Does It All Mean?

There’s something about stories of frontier deprivation and the confrontation with raw nature that intrigues us in times of plenty. Plus, I like movies that give rise to big thoughts about survival, morality, economics, and politics. This one is perfect.

You first think of the animal rights movement, and, in particular, the anti-fur movement. In some cities, you wear fur only with the risk of being shouted down or having fake blood splashed on you. Whether you favor it or oppose it today, there was a time when opposing the killing of animals or opposition to wearing animal skins of any sort would be unthinkable. In a state of nature, we chose: life for us or death for them.

Films that take us back to the frontier are particularly intriguing because this was not exactly a Hobbesian jungle. The traders had guns, knives, and food made from a more extended division of labor. They were fully civilized in every sense we recognize. Humankind had long ago left the primitive stage.

But the men on the expedition found themselves thrust back into the raw conditions of nature. They are faced with extinction. They have to kill or die.

The scenes of nature are incredibly beautiful, but also deeply dangerous. A bad storm can kill everyone. A bear attack can spell the end. Even small injuries can be lethal. Starvation is always threatening. You get the impression from modern environments that nature left alone can provide all our needs, plus be really pretty. The reality is different. Nature has to be hacked back and fended off so that we can survive. Even with Leo, I’m guessing that this movie is not among the top picks for green politics this year.

The more complicated matter concerns the value of other human beings. As I mentioned, it seems rather low. Whatever happened to human rights? Where is the regard for human dignity? Why isn’t everyone wailing that more than half the expeditionary force was wiped out in an attack by natives? It seems like the pelts have more rights than the humans.

When Times Get Tough, Morality Falters

It makes one wonder: how much do economic conditions affect our practical sense of morality? Based on what we see in wartime and extreme poverty China’s “Great Leap Forward” comes to mind notions like human rights are the first to go when material provision dries up. This might imply that they are among the last to be adopted in the history of social evolution.

After all, before basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are met, human beings acting on the high moral sense of universal dignity do so at their own personal peril. And if you can’t safely act on something, a norm cannot emerge and become a persistently reliable feature of life itself.

What is it that happens in the course of social evolution that enhances the value of human life? You could say religion or philosophy. But even then, if the conditions are not right to cause people to have good reason to value each other, how much can we really rely on mental norms to do the trick?

Let’s say we have a system whereby we need each other to improve our own lives. Without your farming, I can’t get food, and without my ranching, you can’t get clothes. Suddenly we have an investment in each other. Your life is valuable to me and mine to you.

The more people who are rolled into this system of specialization and the division of labor, the more the value of human life comes to be a feature of society itself. It’s the same with property: the more we need others’ property rights respected so that we can thrive, the more others will be willing to respect our property.

In The Revenant, the men are not trading with each other. They are on a fixed-term expedition, and their value is as trappers and carriers of pelts. Otherwise, they are mouths to feed. As food begins to run out, these mouths become costs instead of assets. Ethics are a luxury that become a liability. Next thing you know, the captain of the force is left for dead. People move on.

Never Go Back

One of the worst features of a developed economy is how little people perceive the incredible bounty around us, bequeathed to us by the hard work, ingenuity, and risks undertaken by countless generations before.

And it’s not just physical goods. Think of our moral sense: the way we adore human rights, the way we toy with the idea that perhaps nature is benevolent, the way we now disdain fur. These are beautiful concerns to have. We owe their existence to the complex and intricate system of trading relationships we managed to cobble together over the ages.

How fragile are they? They can crumble under the right conditions: war, jail, famine, pestilence  extreme conditions that interfere with our ability to be valuable to others and them to us.

The Revenant is a haunting reminder — and we need them every day  of just how good we have it. That fur is a controversial luxury that we still associate with rich opera patrons and Hollywood movie stars tells us all we need to know.