“Exceptional Zombie Cannibals” – Antonia Bird’s ‘Ravenous’ (1999) and the discourse of American exceptionalism

In the last couple of decades, a conflict has emerged between the perception of exceptionalist rhetoric as a historical symbol of American patriotism and the much more harrowing visions pervading the present-day political stage. For a historian of the antebellum era, such as myself, “American exceptionalism” is synonymic with a post-War of Independence period when America rapidly transformed from a remote and largely unexplored land mass into a force to be reckoned with in the world arena (as noted by non-American observers at the time such as Alex De Tocqueville). For an American Studies scholar in the Trump era, current images associated with the exceptionalist discourse are more uncomfortable, frequently evoking topics such as racism or violence (for instance, the “Unite The Right” rallies in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017). Whether we choose to focus on the past or present, one thing is certain: America, with its particular path of historic development, is intrinsically connected to the exceptionalist discourse.

Illustration from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Twain, 1889). Credit: Project Gutenberg and The Oxford Mark Twain.

The ambiguousness of American exceptionalism as a concept can be observed in certain texts, such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), which reflect the stomping optimistic vision traditionally envisaged as quintessential “American exceptionalism.” This can be observed in the words of the protagonist, who firmly sees himself as an “exceptional” individual with a right to wield power and direct the course of things:

“To be vested with enormous authority is a fine thing; but to have the on-looking world consent to it is a finer.  The tower episode solidified my power, and made it impregnable.  If any were perchance disposed to be jealous and critical before that, they experienced a change of heart, now.  There was not any one in the kingdom who would have considered it good judgment to meddle with my matters.”[1]

The scholarship available at present (such as the brilliant Empire’s Twin: U.S. Anti-Imperialism from the Founding to the Age of Terrorism (2015) by J. Sexton and I. Tyrrell) contradicts this earlier vision, and raises a question concerning whether the stance on the exceptionalist discourse in the nineteenth century was consistenty bordering on cheerfully chauvinistic as Twain’s envisioning of it (where an American character is dubbed the “Boss” and pitted against the comically backward representatives of a different culture and time). This leads one to reflect upon how the concept could have been viewed by the contemporaries at the time of the Great American Expansion, if to distance oneself from the politicised debates.

A possible answer could be contained within Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999). Due to the film frequently being (mis)classified as a cannibalistic horror or even a dark comedy (as the earlier critical reviews mainly focused on those elements)[2], Ravenous’ value as a commentary on the concept of Manifest Destiny and what “exceptionalism” may mean, can be overlooked. There are certainly a few flaws with the plot that could be problematic (not to mention that Ravenous would not do brilliantly on the Bechdel scale, as the entire cast includes just one female character in a supporting role). However, the subject-matter that Bird presents, is gripping.

At the centre of the film, we are presented with an epidemic of madness and cannibalism unfurling in a small and confined microcosm of a Californian fort, populated just by a few world-weary military men and a pair of Native American siblings acting as their guides. Surrounded by astonishingly beautiful and yet brutal nature, the fort is an isolated space supposedly removed from the troubles and conflicts existing in the wider world. Yet it serves as a metaphoric island where the inhabitants are left to face their own personal demons, such as PTSD, alcoholism or gradual descent into insanity. The image that in the Twain-esque optimistic rhetoric was intended to personify the rampant conquering of the virgin land, in reality ends in solitude and cynicism bordering on despair (personified by Colonel Hart, excellently played by Jeffrey Jones). Yet another aspect that is striking and divergent from the conventional interpretation of the exceptionalist discourse is the feeling of powerlessness experienced by those behind the fort walls. The image of the pioneering conqueror has been replaced by a group of far more realistic and diversely problematic characters that seem and act like unconfident, uninvited guests in a vast uninhabited mansion. This is a radically different view from more mainstream narratives such as Into the West series (2005) – for one thing, it exhibits much less of the unadulterated admiration of the prowess of the “pioneers.”

A film still from Ravenous (1999, motion picture, 20th Century Fox, California). Note the American flag in the background. Mr Colhoun/Colonel Ives (played by Robert Carlyle) reminisces about expansionist philosophy.

The stagnant existence of the fort’s inhabitants changes dramatically upon the unexpected arrival of Mr Colhoun (the wonderfully wicked, vicious Robert Carlyle). The arrival of the “infected” individual sets off a spiral of gory events, and all of the major marks of a solid yarn about the bloodthirsty undead are present: the suspense, the gradual onset of cannibalistic killings, and the brutal action sequences. However, what makes Ravenous of particular interest to anyone working in the field of American Studies and especially the expansionist period, is the historical foundation of the plot narrative and the references to actual events. The ill-fated journey of the Donner Party (1846-47), the Native American legends of the spirit Wendigo who cannot be killed, and the story of Alferd Packer (previously presented as dark satire in Cannibal! The Musical (1993)) have all served as a basis upon which Bird tells her tale.

Ravenous also struck an unexpectedly familiar note with Herman Melville’s works. Specifically, the movie brought to mind the well-known passage from Pierre (1852), describing a dream that the protagonist experiences towards the end of his life: the spreading of harmful amaranth covering more and more of the land in the place where Pierre Glendinning previously lived, gradually completely taking over:

“The small white flower, it is our bane!” the imploring tenants cried. “The aspiring amaranth, every year it climbs and adds new terraces to its sway! The immortal amaranth, it will not die, but last year’s flowers survive to this! The terraced pastures grow glittering white, and in warm June still show like banks of snow:—fit token of the sterileness the amaranth begets! Then free us from the amaranth, good lady, or be pleased to abate our rent!”[3]

Pierre’s dream has been interpreted by some Melvillean scholars (such as Wai-Chee Dimock (1989) or Herschel Parker and Brian Higgins (2006)) as a possible metaphor for the gradual spreading of the American exceptionalist discourse interconnected with the notion of Manifest Destiny and expansionism. The suggestions of simultaneous potential toxicity and powerful spreading exemplified in the image of the “small white flower” (reminiscent also of how Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (1855) concludes) can be read as a very subtle metaphor for the white, settler culture expanding to gradually conquer more and more of the territory.

Amaranth flower; in Herman Melville’s novel, Pierre (1852) it becomes a disturbing symbol of American expansion.

Whilst Melville only gently hints at the crucial image of “spreading,” Bird spares no horrific detail to illustrate the notion as a hypothetical, fantastical and nevertheless quite gruesomely realistic horror tale. The fort, which was supposed to be a small beacon of hope in the yet unexplored wilderness, a landmark placed to note the route as expansion westwards progresses, becomes “ground zero” from which the cannibalistic madness would be carried into all the corners of the continent.

Those studying the notions of race, First Nations or white masculinity would find Ravenous a fascinating commentary on all of these topics. It is notable that the disembodied spirit of Wendigo only reawakens and begins its reign of terror as the white settlers, propelled by the echoes of Manifest Destiny rhetoric, arrive. The flashbacks to the horrors of the Mexican War, experienced by the protagonist and framing the main narrative, also send the audience back to the topics of exceptionalism and expansion.

Despite quite a few historical incongruences in the plot of Ravenous, it makes worthwhile viewing as a reflection on the main discourses colouring the antebellum and post-Monroe doctrine era (if one can stand the bloodier moments). Notably, it provides a sombre contrast with the brassily cheerful vision defined in the character of M. Twain’s Yankee, or by the “Young America” movement of Herman Melville’s time.

Footnotes

[1] Taken from: M. Twain (1889), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, taken from: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/86/86-h/86-h.htm#c8

[2] For the most comprehensive collection of reviews of the film, see https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ravenous/

[3] See H. Melville (1852), Pierre, or the Ambiguities, taken from: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34970/34970-h/34970-h.htm

Olga Ackroyd

I am an independent researcher, graduated from Queen Mary, University of London, and University of Oxford, and I am currently gathering materials for a prospective PhD thesis on moral relativism and perception of evil as a social construct in a comparative analysis of USA and Russia in the 19th century. My key interests include USA-Russian relations from the antebellum period to the present day, presidential philosophy, and the life and works of Herman Melville.

About Olga Ackroyd

I am an independent researcher, graduated from Queen Mary, University of London, and University of Oxford, and I am currently gathering materials for a prospective PhD thesis on moral relativism and perception of evil as a social construct in a comparative analysis of USA and Russia in the 19th century. My key interests include USA-Russian relations from the antebellum period to the present day, presidential philosophy, and the life and works of Herman Melville.
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