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Oscar Retrospective: The Revenant


For a very long time, in film and literature, has prevailed an over-romanticized view of the "wild west"; with the unending deserts and the long sunsets, the honorable loner that rights wrongs across the country and the humble cowboy that fights mean Indians.

This, of course, could not be furthest away from the reality of life at the frontier. Because of this, whenever a movie comes along that even remotely tries to stray away from that romance version of American history and tries to bring it closer to actual history, it feels like a very much needed breath of fresh air.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant certainly feels that way. His take on the survival story of a real-life fur hunter (Hugh Glass) is a grizzling tale of hate and revenge, as well as a fresh look upon men's relation to nature. To top it all, it's also a very interesting commentary on the whole indian conflict.


But what makes this movie relevant is not the story itself, which is profoundly simple, but how it's framed. How it tries to stick to the harshness of reality; you feel every wound, you feel the cold, the pain, the helplessness of the conflict. And, most importantly, you are shown both sides as humans (both in the conflict between Glass and Fitzgerald and the one between the white fur traders and Indians). It's the complete opposite of romanticizing.

And like any good movie, every aspect is directed towards those ideas. For many people it's really easy to see how the cinematography does it, or how actors do it. But most people don't even consider the work that the costumes are doing.

In this particular case, the costume design becomes essential in framing the main character within the story at any given moment and is also essential in supporting the movie's attempt at giving a faithful voice to the Indian tribes. For those two reasons only, this movie deserved the nomination it got. But let's have a closer look.

MAN AND NATURE

The costume design for the movie was created by Jacqueline West, who had previously tackled successfully the issue of Native American representation in The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005). She is also the mind behind the designs for Quills (2000), The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The Tree of Life (2011), Water for Elephants (2011) and Argo (2012). So it certainly comes as no surprise when you see her work in this movie.

The main idea behind her work in The Revenant is the relation between character and nature; and so, it's depending on the characteristics of that relationship, that each character gets dressed in this or that way.

Most of these characters have really few costume changes due to their circumstances; I doubt any of them packed a suitcase with clothes before they set themselves into the survival roller coaster that is this movie. This is, after all, a rather realistic take on the story.

Because of this, every single outfit needs to successfully capture the character which is going to wear it and needs to be good enough to stand the whole movie. Adding layers of complication into an already complicated issue.

HUGH GLASS, THE ONE WHO RISES ANEW

Hugh Glass, our main lead, embodies the poetic soul of the movie, and so do his costumes. He finds himself in the wilderness for reasons radically different from the other characters. He is a much more spiritual soul and has a sort of symbiotic relationship with nature. Because of his condition as a guide of the group, he has a deeply empathic relationship with the wilderness. He only takes from it out of necessity and generally cares for all wildlife.

You feel Glass feels all that and you feel that sympathy for a life that is crumbling and being eradicated and he has an almost St. Francis Assisi relationship with animals, you feel he’s in harmony and that he and animals are using each other to survive.       -Jacqueline West, costume designer-


He wears, mostly the same outfit throughout the whole movie (seen in the picture above). But said costume does appear in various states of disrepair, which, basically, fall into three stages: pre-bear attack, convalescence and post-attack.

The whole design is heavily based on drawings and descriptions of trappers back then, but it also takes influence from christian imaginary. The whole jacket is supposed to have a certain monk-like feel, especially in the hood, which is lined with beaver fur, and it was inspired by two ideas with little to nothing in common between them.

One was actually a Russian icon of a monk in a hood and the other was an early painting of a Native American, actually, an Arikara hunter. . . . Hugh Glass had lived with the Pawnee and had a Pawnee wife and son and the spiritual implications of why he was in the wilderness were very different than the other trappers, who were out there for survival and monetary gains. I think of Glass as a guide, and not a trapper. . . . The wilderness was kind of his symbolic church and he actually communed with animals so I always saw him, and I think Alejandro saw him this way, as almost St. Francis of Assisi, hence the hood.                    -Jacqueline West, costume designer-


Despite the apparent disparity between these two basic ideas (the Christian monk and the Arikara hunter), the result manages to make sense within the context of the movie, which constantly mixes these two ideas as well: spirituality and nature, symbols and faith, hunter and prey...

Also, this basic outfit gets torn apart and resewn together over and over through the movie, reinforcing the movie theme of birth and rebirth through death and pain.

note the resewn tears on the jacket
So much happens to him, that it had to really be a philosophical construction and deconstruction, where just like the man, the costume evolves through time and nature and experience and it goes through this evolution where it gets shed and then it re-accumulates until he totally strips and crawls into that horse, and then he’s kind of reborn like a baby at birth, bloody and naked.                                                                       -Jacqueline West, costume designer-

This idea of rebirth is also found in the use of the bear skin that he uses for most of the second act of the movie.


Probably, one of the smartest incorporation on his outfit is this one, as it creates a rather poetic image. In the movie, after he kills the bear that attacks him, his companions skin the animal and give the bear skin to Glass as a present. Through his excruciatingly hard trek across the wilderness, as he tries to get back to the Fort, the bear skin will keep him from freezing on more than one occasion. And so, the animal that almost kills him, ends up being, in many ways, the animal that saves his life.

It’s like it’s almost embracing him and taking care of him. Don’t you kind of feel that in the way it wraps him, like the horse. He doesn’t sacrifice the horse, but in riding over the cliff the horse dies and then saves him. He’s kind of reborn after that moment when he emerges from the horse bloodied like a newborn baby. It’s almost a rebirth for Glass. And the way he touches the horse, he as a real commune with that horse.                                                                        -Jacqueline West, costume designer- 
This was a real grizzly skin that they leased from the Canada's park department, which is a detail that helps give the outfit a very real feel.

Glass's only costume change comes after he gets back to the Fort, once he is set on the path to finding Fitzgerald.


He wears and officers cape for this final act of the movie. For the design, West mixed the style of real army coats of the time with some elements of the robes worn by Capuchin monks (mainly the color and texture).


This character, who posses a very deep knowledge of nature, who knows animals and almost communes with them (only killing when he has to and only for survival, which is the same reason why animals attack or kill), is constantly presented wearing things that are visually reminiscent of Christian imaginary. By doing this, the movie creates a link between a certain form of holiness and nature.

It wasn’t men against the animal, it was really about them both fighting nature to survive. Like God, they all wept for mercy out in that wilderness. Nature stripped them of their egos, their clothes, and then they had to be reconstructed. Because of that cycle, all the characters’ clothes tell a story.                                                                             -Jacqueline West, costume designer-

This theme, this idea, is the one that serves as a motor for the whole story, driving it forward. It's also this idea that helps make these characters so interesting.

FITZGERALD, THE CRUEL VOICE OF REASON

Tom Hardy plays Fitzgerald, the hardened trapper that leaves Glass to die in the wilderness. Our antagonist for the movie. I say antagonist, and not villain, because his character is not black or white. He is amazingly human, and you actually find yourself understanding his motivations and logic a lot through the movie (sometimes even more than Glass's motivations and logic).


He, like Glass's character, has only two costume changes: the outfit he wears previous to his escape from the Ford (which is almost the whole of the first and second act of the movie) which is shown in the picture above, and the outfit he wears post-escape (basically the final showdown between Glass and Fitzgerald).

One element that is common in both outfits is the bandana/handkerchief on his head, which he uses to cover the scars on his scalp (which fuel his hate towards native).

Both costumes have another thing in common; both are lined with badger fur. West chose badger for Fitzgerald because this animal is "all about survival" (in her own words). Which is what makes the character interesting: he is a survivor, all he cares about is his own skin. He is going to survive at any cost.


His second outfit also features badger; this time on his head.

I put the badger on his head complete with the whiskers.                                                    -Jacqueline West, costume designer-

But this second outfit stellar inclusion is the red jacket. This is probably one of the few (I would risk saying the only, but I need to re-watch the movie to make sure) items of clothing that strays from the brown palette, and it's a very clever and symbolic way to visualize the blood on his hands.

JIM BRIDGER, THE APPRENTICE

Young Jim Bridger, the devoted apprentice to Glass, is actually an historical figure, and would grow up to become one of the greatest trapper guides of the Great Plains during the last years of the Indian Frontier.


As a nod to this, West created for this character a buffalo coat, which was turned outside out to show the untanned skin on the outside, like trappers usually did.

It's a nice nod to history for sure.


THE NATIVES

Let's begin by clarifying that I am no expert on Indian culture or historical fashion, this is not my area of comfort when it comes to historical accuracy. Even though it's a period and a group of cultures that fascinates me, there is way too much variation for me to get a grasp of accuracy. Every single tribe and culture had its own traditional garments and fashion, which complicates things further.

Despite my lack of knowledge in that regard, I can see that most Hollywood movies (mostly westerns) have not cared one bit about accuracy when depicting the Native Americans. Even movies that are still considered masterpieces clearly care little if their depiction of Indians is faithful or not (I'm looking at you, The Searchers). But, to my eye, The Revenant does care.


West and Iñárritu went to great lengths to portray the Arikara tribe faithfully (maybe it's me, but I think that the fact that Iñárritu is not American plays a big factor in that).


I was mostly reminded of many of Edward S. Curtis pictures (which generally is my barometer for accuracy when depicting Native Americans) when looking at how West dressed them for the movie. 

Arikara chief
Arikara girl (dated 1908)
another Arikara girl

So, heads up to West for actually caring about accuracy. (If you want to see more pictures check out my pinterest board: Bury my heart at wounded Knee)

CONCLUSION

The Revenant is a poetic, historically accurate (at least when it comes to ways of life and costuming, for I am aware that they changed the story a bit) and heavily detailed. 

It's worth to check out because it's a great movie, and if you like history and historical costuming, you'll particularly enjoy it. It's, definitely, a very well deserved nomination (in all categories, but as we are talking about costume, I'm focusing on the nomination for Best Costume Design) and it's really a shame it did not win (although I think Mad Max did also deserve to win).

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