As a history teacher, I am tasked with educating students on the entirety of the American experiment. From our start as the fingerholds of colonialism on a new continent to the neocolonial establishment of US military presence in 80 sovereign nations, we are a country that is founded and directed by colonialist principles. Our history is filled with acts of colonization, appropriation, and consumption of everything we touch. Something you start to notice when teaching this subject year after year is the lengths we go to convince ourselves that America was and remains on the right side of history. Yet behind all the exceptionalism and patriotic veneer, we see an all-devouring force ruled by fear.
This is the situation happened upon in Ravenous (1999), a film directed by Antonia Bird. We first see Capt. John Boyd being honored for his bravery during the Mexican-American War, single-handedly capturing an enemy fort. It is important to note that the Mexican-American War, fought following the American annexation of Texas, was a struggle to defend the institution of slavery in the territory as Mexico sought to abolish it. Texas, which was part of Mexico, was rife with American settlers, many of whom moved to the region in order to farm cotton on largely unclaimed land. At one point, enslaved people were 20% of the American population in Texas (Freehling, 1991). Eventually, the United States army came in as the colonizing force of annexation. As the introduction continues, it is revealed through a series of flashbacks that he played dead out of fear while the rest of his platoon was slaughtered, eventually ending up in an enemy fort and being able to capture its leader. For this act of cowardice, he is sent to the Sierra Nevada to finish out his service, as they cannot terminate him for his “act of bravery.”
At Fort Spencer, we find a skeleton crew of broken men on the edge of civilization, clearly soured on the ideals of American expansion and Manifest Destiny, led by Col. Hart. We see soldiers spend their day seeking refuge in drink, drugs, and religion. It is this group that first encounters Colqhoun; finding him half frozen and near death, they bring him inside to hear how he ended up this way. He tells a tale that is echoed in history (The Donner Party / Meek’s Lost Wagon Train) of lost expeditions turning to cannibalism to try and last another day. Colonel Ives takes a wagon train towards the west coast, promising a shortcut, only to get the party snowed in for three months. The party, Colqhoun included, resorts to cannibalism and eventually murder. Colqhoun tells the story of how they ate the oxen, horses, and a dog, then turned to their belts, shoes, and roots, before eventually eating their own party members that had died of malnourishment. If we are to read this insatiable hunger as a metaphor for colonization, we see here that when becoming stagnant, this machine of colonization devours any resource it can in order to stay alive. Once all the resources have been used, it eventually turns to people. History shows us countless references to this, most notably “when European colonization of the Americas resulted in the killing of so many native people — 56 million or roughly 90% of the continent’s population — that it transformed the environment and caused the Earth’s climate to cool down.” (Millman, 2019)
The co-opting of culture as a means of control is nothing new. Such was used by the Romans when adding to their pantheon of gods with those of the civilizations they conquered and absorbed. The Roman Catholic church co-opting pagan traditions made forced conversion a lesser pill to swallow. Colonization is no different, as it conquers, absorbs, and forces the conversion of “lesser” people into the Western construct of white, civilized society. George, an indigenous inhabitant of the fort, warns the group of the Wendigo myth, in which anyone who eats human flesh will absorb that person’s strength but be cursed with an insatiable hunger. By seeing the Wendigo myth as an opportunity to co-opt or colonize, Colqhoun (who is revealed to be Ives) attempts to use it to secure power, a means to overcome disease. He was told this by an indigenous scout, who he then murders and eats because he “just had to try.” Using cannibalism, his need to consume can be read as the heart of Manifest Destiny. In the so-called “settling” and expansion of the American West, this act of colonialism, of consumption and depletion of resources, people, and land, all was done in the name of wealth, power, and divine right. The exploitation of indigenous and minority populations to accomplish these goals is no secret in our history, as the colonizer’s need to consume, to quell the ravenous desire for more, leaves no other recourse but the destruction of anything it touches.
When Colqhoun returns to the fort as Col. Ives to assume command, Boyd’s concerns go unheard. There is no one to corroborate his story, no one who has met Colqhoun prior, and Boyd is written off as crazy. This act of intentional gaslighting by Colqhoun speaks to the constant revision that is necessary for colonizing forces to convince themselves they are on the right side. The replacement of historical accuracy with patriotic mythology, as well as the framing of divine right and providence, fill our current history textbooks and curriculum across the country. This use of gaslighting as oppression to secure power further cuts Boyd off from anyone that could possibly stop this curse.
Colqhoun praises Manifest Destiny and American expansionism, as it creates a funnel for victims to feed on as they pass through the Sierra. He sits with Boyd, remarking that “We just need a home. This country is seeking to be whole. Stretching out its arms and consuming all it can, and we merely follow.” He further illustrates this by telling Boyd it isn’t courageous to resist but more courageous to accept him, asking him to just give in. This temptation is a lie told by oppressors to the oppressed throughout time, painting conversion and assimilation as the right thing to do. Like others before him, when he refuses to assimilate, extermination is the final recourse.
Colqhoun’s continuation of tempting Boyd into choosing to give in to eating the human stew leaves Boyd with a choice of death or life, as well as the means to secure power through conversion. Col. Hart, previously thought dead, recounts his acceptance of the curse, remarking that once it was done, he feels better than ever. The idea that the oppressed can attain power and prestige by giving in to the system that oppresses them is the hallmark of Western civilization myths. When Boyd eats the stew, he is not doing it for some noble reason or to save others with power. He simply does not want to die. He fears death. Even after watching Colqhoun slaughter his new squad, Boyd repeatedly says he wants to run away, going so far as throwing himself off a cliff to not confront Colqhoun. He, like the system of colonization, is ruled by fear. Fear of death, of extinction, of the “other,” all of it plays into the need to coopt, colonize, and convert.
Colqhoun, now wearing a blood-drawn sign of the cross on his forehead, fights Boyd as he resists the acceptance of the hunger. When Martha sees the two together in the end, dying in the jaws of a bear trap, she walks away. She knows that prolonging this curse will only lead to more exploitation, more destruction, and more death. As the indigenous bystander thrust into a power grab that was not of her choosing, Martha watches and decides to let the devouring curse of colonization die alone in a cabin. We see her leaving the fort for good, headed anywhere else. Sometimes resistance can be as simple as letting the cycle die.
Ravenous speaks not just to the curse in the film but to the curse of colonialism and expansionism, one that is passed down through the ages, constantly disguising itself. Colonialism gave way to imperialism, which rebranded itself as globalism, all just different iterations of physical, cultural, and economic exploitation. General Slauson tasting the stew on the fire shows us that even through our best efforts to destroy the gears of colonialism, there will always be those that wish to set the wheel in motion again. We are not told how much it takes to turn someone, but it is a safe bet that Slauson has opened himself to the ravenous hunger of colonialism, once again ready to devour.
As I have touched on in each of these pieces, neocolonialism runs rampant throughout our own history, its ideals even bleeding into our cultural artifacts, such as film. The key to its defeat starts with our active resistance, our ability to learn from our own history and mistakes, the willingness and acceptance to understand cultures outside of our own bias, and like Martha, the choice to not allow the cycle to continue. However, much like these films illustrate, “decolonization is always a violent event.” (Fanon et al.,1963) 🩸
Fanon, F., West, C., Philcox, R., Sartre, J.-P., & Bhabha, H. K. (1961). On Violence. In The Wretched of the Earth (p. 1). essay, Grove Press.
Freehling, 1990, The Road to Disunion. pp. 368–369
Guardian News and Media. (2019, January 31). European colonization of Americas killed so many it cooled Earth’s climate. The Guardian.
Jordan Gerdes is an author and educator based in Houston, TX. His writing has repeatedly upset his teachers and professors, typically by applying academic analysis of history and literature to horror media. When he isn’t teaching, writing, or devouring Stephen King novels, he can be found spending time with his wife and dogs outdoors.
Visit MANOR’s official website: MANORHQ.com.
© 2023 Manor Entertainment LLC