In researching wendigo myths for a fiction project I’ve been working on, I figured I’d break from the academic and historic articles and watch the 1999 film Ravenous, starring Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle and directed by Antonia Bird. Ravenous is a darkly humorous satire that is fantastically skewering and clever. Set in 1840’s California, the film revolves around cannibalism, specifically invoking the Wendigo myth against a cultural backdrop of Manifest Destiny and the budding American Dream. Throughout the use of the story of the wendigo, the movie explores indoctrinated violence and the “masculine” act of meat consumption, repressed homosexuality and colonialism.
The movie begins with Captain John Boyd (Pearce) receiving a medal for single-handedly capturing an enemy base during the Mexican-American war. After being presented with the medal, he is seated for a steak dinner with his fellow officers; a dinner that he can’t stomach, and is later berated for being unable to keep down.
VIOLENCE & MEAT CONSUMPTION
In today’s western culture, you ain’t a real man unless you’re eating bacon by the pound, and having a near-sexual relationship with steak. Many meat-related commercials only vaguely attempt to disguise metaphoric imagery of what amounts to a man fucking meat. It is a ridiculous attitude with numerous health and environmental pitfalls, and Ravenous makes eating meat seem putrid and vile while showcasing this masculine love-affair with cooked flesh. In fact, as you’ll see later, this salacious boner-inducing flesh-consumption-sex segways into embedded homoeroticism and the subsequent and ingrained denial of (and this ties back into channelling homoerotic desire into “acceptable venues” like sports or violence).
When Captain Boyd is seated to eat the much-coveted steak dinner, we see a rare steak, completely lacking any kind of sauce or flavouring, with flies buzzing around it in the summer heat. While his comrades in arms eagerly scarf their portions (with appetizing close-ups to their juice-drizzled faces), Captain Boyd simply stares at this flesh on his plate. Lacking any dressing, the meat is exactly that: dead flesh. It’s completely naked and without the usual mealtime trappings people enjoy dousing upon sliced up corpse, it looks startlingly indistinguishable from human flesh (I’d encourage you to google autopsy photos and then go to your local meat counter. Pork is the closest meat to human flesh, in taste, texture, etc. but you’ll notice that sliced up, most mammals are pretty indistinguishable). As Captain Boyd stares at his meat while others have a consumptive love affair theirs, he has flashbacks to the battlefield – an obvious reality check that war heroism is scarcely ever the beautiful heroics we are so trained to accept. Boyd played dead and ended up behind enemy lines, and after being buried under the stacked corpses of his fellow soldiers, he inadvertently swallows a hefty amount of their blood that trickles down from their wounds, but he’s trapped and unable to escape. However, by consuming their bodily fluid, he becomes strengthened, emboldened and manages to single-handedly capture the enemy’s base, which in turn results in his medal for “bravery”.
But after the ceremony and his sadly impotent inability to eat meat without vomiting at the sight of it, his superior reprimands him and sends him to Northern California because his is, after all, a “coward.”
REPRESSED HOMOEROTICISM: “The potency of someone else pulsing through your veins”
Robert Carlyle’s character of dual-identities, the frontiersman Colqhoun, who arrives near-dead and freezing outside the fort and subsequently leads the men into a trap so he can eat them, and Colonel Ives, the “real” Colqhoun, who is a high-ranking and respected military official, is the most likable character(s) in Ravenous. Although a villain, Ives is more like a much more playful Lestat (Interview With the Vampire) to Boyd’s much more pathetic Louis. Ives is entirely at ease with his cannibalism, and is eager to “recruit” Boyd to his lifestyle. Their tense relationship is fraught with frustration, desire and denial of desire, and is very near to a comedic romance. Ives makes being a wendigo look, well, appetizing.
Boyd’s relationship with Colqhoun/Ives is where the satire of the movie most obvious. It’s easy to see the metaphor for homosexuality in their relationship, and the portrayal of “giving in” to the pleasures of the flesh of another man, and the nourishment one can derive from it. Ives is salubrious, strong, healthy and despite being cast as the villain, completely charming. Boyd on the other hand constantly struggles with his emasculating “cowardice” that models of masculinity have consistently berated him and bullied him for. For a large portion of the movie, Boyd is Ives’s prisoner as Ives attempts to sway Boyd into embracing cannibalism. While Ives effectively hides his cannibalistic nature while in the social realm, Boyd can’t quite seem to manage the same camouflage, often appearing disheveled and half crazed. But Ives sees in Boyd the same urges that are within him, and between the two we see the conflict between repression and liberation. As Ives tries to “recruit” Boyd, their relationship begins to become hilariously homoerotic.
Boyd never consumes the flesh of a man without heavy amounts of shame, apprehension and regret. Although he is told that there is no “cure” for being a wendigo, he persists in denying the very thing that he is. Ives has fully embraced his nature, and only wishes Boyd would as well. In this sense, he’s not especially a villain but something much more nourishing. Ives doesn’t want Boyd to live repressed, and as he feeds the weakened Boyd soup made from the flesh of a man, he is effectively healing Boyd, and makes remarks throughout the film that are laden with sexual overtones, commenting on the “potency” of another pulsing through your veins. The act of consuming human flesh is literally having someone inside you, which mimics the act of sex.
Although consuming meat and reveling in it together is an acceptable male-bonding pass-time, and even a culturally promoted one, it’s hard to deny the sanctioned homoeroticism of it. It is an indulgence in flesh, and the “celebrated” trope of men and their barbecues and man parties centered around the consumption of meat has become the hallmark of rugged masculinity. (In fact, society has tried to make meat consumption associated with heteronormative men for so long that the disingenuous “holiday” was created focusing on the two straightest possible things: steaks and blow jobs. But steak and a blow job day is missing an important component: nobody said the blow job had to be given by a woman.)
In another sexually tense scene, we see Ives voluntarily removing his shirt so Boyd and other military men can see if Ives still bears a wound where he was shot (presumably to prove Boyd’s accusations against Ives). Ives flirtatiously and coyly removes his shirt, while stating “my last physical examination was not so long ago, surely Major Knox has no desire to hear me…cough”(implying of course that one of the men present should be holding his penis). Finally, after a near-striptease, Ives reveals his bare and unmarred shoulder to the men in the room while staring down Boyd with an unnerving sexual air as he reveals his flesh. The gesture is decidedly classically “feminine” and calls to mind the old hollywood sex symbols of decades past.
There is also a notable and highly sexualized scene where Ives has Boyd’s blood on his fingers and, in mid-conversation with Boyd, stops to sniff his fingers – a gesture normally associated with vulgar reference to “straight” sex – a man smells his fingers, or tells another man to, to share the odour of a woman’s genitals and revel in sexual conquest. The blood on his fingers while performing this gesture also calls to mind menstrual blood – which is ironic considering the homosexual overtones and very lack of the fertility that menstrual blood implies. Culturally, however, engaging in sexual activity while a woman is on her period is often considered taboo, lending yet another layer of discomfort to this scene. Ives is playing at tantalizing Boyd with the blood and tempting Boyd’s desire for flesh – and it works. The “coup de grace” of this gesture is when Ives seductively relishes sucking the blood from his fingers as Boyd looks on, tied up and Ives’s prisoner, and can only salivate.
In the end, Boyd and Ives reach a critical conflict, culminating in Boyd managing to trap both of them in a massive bear-trap. When the trap shuts, they are in an embrace not unlike lovers, and engage in a brief, whispered conversation before both die. Ives tells Boyd that tricking him into falling into the trap was “really sneaky,” and then goads Boyd by offering him the promise of flesh one last time – Ives asks if he dies first if Boyd will then consume his flesh. Ultimately, they both end up dying in the embrace of one another, and of the trap – the all-consuming power for the flesh of man was the end of both men, but the only reason they were destroyed was Boyd’s willingness to sacrifice himself rather than become, completely, a wendigo.
The most overlooked component in Ravenous is colonialism – and the lens of colonialism offers a reading that fits in nice alongside the reading of repressed homosexuality. The movie co-opts an aboriginal myth (of the wendigo) in order to tell a white story. Through the course of the film, the myth is changed and harnessed for purposes of white colonizers, and to tell their story.
As insidious and appropriative as this sounds, there is something clever about choosing to use an aboriginal story in the film. In a sense, the wendigo myth can be read as being about capitalism, about greed, about consuming and destroying, so it makes sense that those who are falling into becoming wendigos (through war, and through attempting to fulfill Manifest Destiny), are white men. White men are inherently metaphorical wendigos in the time and space of Ravenous, and even still today from a cultural standpoint. One of the mere two Native characters in the film (a scout) explains the story of the wendigo, and when Boyd asks if people “still do that,” the scout shows him a drawing of Jesus Christ and explains Christians eat his flesh every Sunday, cleverly (and humorously) drawing in Christianity to the narrative of consumptive greed – and Christianity historically had so much to do with the oppression, colonization and genocide of First Nations peoples throughout North America. So by demonstrating via this myth the “nature” of the colonizers, it creates this multi-tiered satirical strategy to skewer and also dismantle the colonial power. It is notable that while in the end of the film the perpetuation of the wendigo is an inevitability despite both Boyd and Ives’s demise, the only person to escape the entire fiasco and the only person throughout the film who had working fucking knowledge of how to deal with being a wendigo and in identifying wendigos was the completely overlooked is Martha, the only woman and one of only two aboriginal people residing in the fort.
The long-story-short version of this is that white people appropriate and colonize everything, even culturally-specific cannibal myths. There’s nothing they won’t completely get their hands in, appropriate to themselves, and subsequently destroy. Ravenous does a hilarious job at demonstrating this fact, and the entire movie is indeed a “dark humour” satire that does a fantastic job dissecting and mocking the very notions of masculinity, Manifest Destiny, and colonization.
For me, Ravenous is one of those rare, kitschy movies that has a perfect balance of excellent storytelling, a bang-up cast, a bizarre but completely enjoyable soundtrack, and on-point satire that plays hide-and-seek with the viewer – it’s not always entirely obvious, but the moments that it is illuminate other moments in the film where it could be deemed as hiding. Not everyone will get a kick out of this movie, or even get this movie, but the ridiculousness is all part of the game. Ravenous pokes fun at masculine conventions, colonial attitudes and repressed homosexuality as much as it does at itself, which lends a certain humility to the film as a whole. Cast upon the backdrop of such epic historical ventures like war and westward expansion – fables of greatness that the American Dream is ultimately founded upon – the central story becomes uproariously funny and about all the mistakes and ill-founded hope that such a “Dream” is built on. Martha was bloody right to get the hell outta dodge – that shit will eat you alive.
If you are wondering about appropriation of culture, especially of Native cultures, I highly fucking recommend you visit Native Appropriations and read the shit outta that website, you will learn a lot.