Hollywood’s Last Cowboy

The Revenant (2015) | 20th Century Fox

Calvin Candie’s reputation precedes him. When Django (Jamie Foxx) learns his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) was sold to Candie, he tells his traveling companion, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), “Ain’t no slave ain’t heard of Candyland.” Yet Quentin Tarantino has us wait an hour into Django Unchained (2012) before we’re introduced to the film’s heavy—and even then, Candie does not turn to face Django and Schultz, his focus instead directed toward the gruesome Mandingo fight happening mere feet away from him. It’s not until Schultz expresses boredom that Candie looks over his shoulder. Tarantino quick-zooms to a close-up of the plantation owner, and we are caught off-guard. Candie’s infamy invokes a cruel bastard with an ego made of glass (though Monsieur Candie is a Francophile, his lawyer warns Django and Schultz they should refrain from speaking French because “it’ll embarrass him”), but Leonardo DiCaprio’s soft eyes, wide smile, and devilish charm suggest more of a fairy tale wolf. His slicked-back hair, tobacco-stained teeth, crushed velvet jacket, and cigarette holder add texture to Candie’s aura. The glow of a fireplace turns the Julius Caesar Room into a devil’s chamber, the name of the room telling us to expect nothing short of betrayal. Candie’s smile widens as he gestures for Django and Schultz to join him against the unbroken backdrop of two men fighting to the death.

Django Unchained wasn’t Leonardo DiCaprio’s first Western, but it started a new chapter in his career that resulted in four Westerns out of his last seven films. These films—Django Unchained, The Revenant (2015), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), and the recently released Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)—represent an opportunity to understand the process behind one of the great film talents of the last half-century, as well as a number of variations on a theme within a genre that has experienced more death and rebirth than Easter Sunday. What do Calvin Candie, Hugh Glass, and Rick Dalton tell us about Leonardo DiCaprio as an artist? And what do these characters tell us about American history and its myths, be they playful, dangerous, or everywhere in between?

Calvin Candie introduced two things to DiCaprio’s post-Titanic career: a supporting role1 and the chance to play the villain.2 During the 2000s, DiCaprio established himself as Martin Scorsese’s muse and frequent collaborator, commanding the screen as he went toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis, Cate Blanchett, and Jack Nicholson. In addition to exclusively working with the upper echelon of filmmakers—a privilege that comes with being one of Hollywood’s last remaining movie stars—DiCaprio’s selectiveness with his roles also meant fewer films total, and often longer breaks between projects. Though he’s never mentioned in the Western pantheon with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, DiCaprio has made as many Westerns in the last ten years as Eastwood has in the past 40.3 Perhaps James Stewart is a more suitable counterpart to DiCaprio’s relationship to the Western, though. After more than a decade of working with Frank Capra and George Cukor on dramedy and screwball classics, Stewart began a fruitful collaboration with Anthony Mann on Winchester ‘73 (1950) that resulted in a shift for the rest of his legendary career.4 Stewart’s attraction to these stories5 and characters lay in the opportunity to play with  the foundation of American myth and storytelling—something DiCaprio’s work in the genre has done time and again over the past decade.

To look at DiCaprio’s films since Django Unchained is to see a very intentional political move on the actor’s part. In addition to his Westerns, his three other features—The Great Gatsby (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and Don’t Look Up (2021)—are all scathing critiques of American capitalism and the individual desire for comfort at the expense of others. Given the actor’s considerable efforts over the years to bring attention to climate change and two of its biggest implications—the loss of indigenous communities and the destruction of wildlife—it comes as no surprise that DiCaprio would turn to the Western. As a genre founded on the conflict between Natives and settlers, the Western inherently addresses our current destruction of native lands and indigenous populations. The tenets of the Western force the viewer to confront the environmental consequences of westward expansion and capitalism without reins. 

In The Revenant, Alejandro Iñárritu tells the almost mythic but true story of Hugh Glass—a fur trader left for dead after a grizzly bear attack—and his vengeful quest across the American West to find the man who killed his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The film’s visual rhetoric emphasizes the beauty and violence of 1820s frontier life, from trees dense and verdant in spring to snow stained with the blood of warfare. On his journey, Glass experiences a moment of natural sublimity in a frenzied herd of bison and a pack of wolves on the hunt. The two species, essential to Western iconography, once dominated the American landscape until overhunting brought them to near extinction by the end of the 19th century. Even the beaver, whose pelts we see Glass and his fellow fur trappers cleaning and preparing for sale, was almost completely eliminated from the North American continent.6

Since the Treaty With the Delawares in 1778, hundreds of documented agreements between First Nations and colonial governments have been ignored, overturned, and unenforced.7 The Revenant, set in the years prior to  Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, demonstrates the numerous ways in which localized acts of economic disruption and manipulation accomplished the same genocidal agenda. Arikara chief Elk Dog (Duane Howard), who leads the raid at the film’s opening in search of his kidnapped daughter, seeks a fair trade of thousands of dollars worth of beaver pelt for horses and supplies, but the French, like their American counterparts, never intended to follow through on their end of the deal. Westward expansion in the 19th century fulfilled the aim of Manifest Destiny to carry out white male supremacy across the North American continent. Tom Hardy’s monstrous Fitzgerald is the physical embodiment of racially-motivated violence and white male entitlement to the American West, but the more sinister threat is much bigger than Fitzgerald.

The Western is known for its silent Natives and stoic cowboys; The Revenant subverts both. More dialogue in an indigenous language is spoken here than is typically heard in the genre. We hear characters such as Elk Dog, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), Hawk, and Hikuc (Arthur Redcloud) speak in their native languages when conversing with Glass; this was my first time hearing Pawnee and Arikara spoken on film. Hugh Glass, on the other hand, is voiceless for most of the film, a consequence of the grizzly bear attack that nearly kills him—and even if it weren’t for a grizzly paw almost severing his vocal cords, Glass’s journey is mostly a solo one. His run-in with Hikuc, his eventual, albeit temporary companion, provides less opportunity for verbal communication than it does for a chance to show how a common language doesn’t have to be a spoken one. In one of The Revenant’s most tender scenes, Glass and Hikuc catch snowflakes in their mouths. Verbal language can so quickly obfuscate shared human experience that it becomes all too easy to forget how much we have in common, but the joy of catching snowflakes on your tongue is an experience that need not be articulated into words. The two men, exiled and alone in the world, sit together, collecting fresh snowfall in their mouths, smiling and laughing at the sensation. Silly, maybe, but necessary to Glass’s journey. After witnessing some of the most horrific things that man can do to man and nature, the scene is a reminder of the human potential to bend towards peace. Glass’s raison d’etre doesn’t have to be purely revenge against Fitzgerald for the death of his son; it can also be a second chance at life. 

This scene’s function is a small representation of how the film captures vistas of the beautiful, endless North American landscape. It’s an America that seems imaginary to most of us now. A vanishing natural environment that rightfully haunts us with the memory of what we had and destroyed. The Revenant’s cast and crew spoke about the fact that production in Canada shut down for five months because of the lack of snow in the middle of winter, forcing production to move to Argentina to finish filming.8 This terrifying global reality is one of the reasons why DiCaprio chose to make The Revenant in the first place. DiCaprio had been in the process of making a climate documentary called Before the Flood when he began work on The Revenant. The latter reflected the sentiment of the former in their raw depictions of man physically altering the environment.9

It was a chance to focus on the biggest conversation we all need to have with ourselves as a species. It is easy to expect myth from The Revenant due to the tall-tale nature of Hugh Glass’s story, but what we get is much less abstract and much more an American reality that is easy to deny: myths that we create and retell countless times until we believe them to be fact. 

Over a century into the fictional future, fact and fiction elude each other still, and DiCaprio slips into his Western garb yet again for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Shot in vibrant technicolor, the film ushers the 1960s to a close with Rick Dalton’s peak, the hit TV Western Bounty Law, years behind him. Re-teaming with Tarantino, DiCaprio plays, for the first time in his career, an actor. Rick Dalton scored big as Jake Cahill—a no-nonsense bounty hunter who lives on the line between Right and Wrong. Like Eastwood on Rawhide, Dalton’s star grew too big for TV; unlike Eastwood, Dalton didn’t successfully transition to the silver screen. Punished for leaving Bounty Law in the early ’60s at the height of its popularity, Dalton is relegated to playing supporting roles on Tarzan, The Green Hornet, and Bingo Martin. As producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) points out to him, Rick’s become a stepping stone for the next big thing to beat up on. This conversation brings Rick face-to-face with the reality that he’s running out of time. His decision to leave Bounty Law for a movie career, no matter how many years in the past, never sat well with the studios; for Rick, pilot seasons bring disappointment instead of renewal. Let’s not forget that Rick Dalton is from Missouri and not Los Angeles. Like many others, he came to the City of Angels with a dream to make it big. The narrative of going west offers the individual a chance at success, not a promise.

Rick Dalton is a role familiar to DiCaprio’s body of work: a spiritual down-and-outer who never knows when to stay down and out. Like Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road (2008), desperate for that glimmer of hope to prove he’s not done yet, or The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, who knows what it’s like to be on top of the world and what it’s like to fall from it, Dalton struggles to be honest with himself. These characters aren’t just hungry—they’re starving. Just as the Western gave Dalton his rise to fame, so too does it resurrect his career. Playing Caleb DeCoteau on James Stacy’s Lancer isn’t just a throwaway role. For Rick, it proves that Bounty Law wasn’t a fluke. Caleb is the kind of scene-stealing role that provides the chance to prove to audiences and himself that he’s not just another TV cowboy lost in the dust. As director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) says to him, “I hired you to be an actor, Rick, not a TV cowboy.” In other words, audiences want something complicated, complex, and morally dubious. They want a character to live on both sides of morality. 

The cowboy is the primal vestige of the exceptional narrative of American individualism. Our identities are self-made, and our futures are always full of possibilities regardless of what our pasts contain. The cowboy’s sense of law and order in a lawless West is more personal than institutional. The cowboy exists on the border, physically and figuratively. In a liminal space of law(lessness), the cowboy doesn’t have to abide by anybody’s code but his own. Whether it’s against the natural environment or the quickdraw of a Man in Black, the survival of the individual is at stake. As the audience, we want the cowboy to win the shootout in the end, not because we want Good to triumph over Evil, but because it means we have a chance in the face of everything that wishes to make us faceless in a crowd. DiCaprio’s cowboys remind us that there’s always something inside us that refuses to be snuffed out.

For Rick Dalton, the Western is the beginning and the end, the provider of quality and coin. Django and The Wolf of Wall Street are bold, maximalist platforms for DiCaprio’s comedic abilities, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood allows for much more subtle moments of satire. Dalton feels a lot and isn’t afraid to show it. During the Lancer shoot, a child actor (Julia Butters) asks Rick to describe the book he’s reading, Frederic Remington’s The Bronco Buster. As he talks, he becomes newly aware of the text’s very personal connection to the current state of his career. A Bronco buster midway through life, Tom “Easy” Breezy is banged up and not quite who he used to be. Forced to re-examine his life and determine its value, Breezy is at an existential crossroads. This metatextual triple layering between Easy Breezy, Dalton, and DiCaprio illustrates an artist’s ability to tell someone else’s story as a means to tell their own. Through Dalton, DiCaprio is able to express his fears, insecurities, and emotions about the movie industry. For DiCaprio, the Western is as personal as it is political.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an apotheosis for DiCaprio’s life on screen. Whether it’s a ruthless slaver, a fur trapper, or a TV cowboy, the Western provides DiCaprio with almost boundless opportunity, not unlike the way the West once inspired countless individuals to dream, to escape into the possibility of what could be. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood makes it clear that dreams don’t always come true, and that they’re always susceptible to being shattered if they do. The film does what the Western has always done by reminding us that what we’re seeing is a fantasy. What if Rick Dalton landed the McQueen role? What if Sharon Tate had lived? What if the Western frontier were as simple as Right and Wrong, and all the heroes were Just? As the film title suggests, all of it is a fairy tale to tell children at the onset of their own mythmaking stage. 

The cowboy in television, film, and literature is a blank canvas on which we are able to see the image of ourselves. The epitome of rugged American individualism, cowboys can be anything we want them to be, with variations as endless as the imagination can conceive. From Gene Autry to John Wayne, Blazing Saddles to Tombstone, cowboys run the gamut of emotions. The myth of the American West has often been played as monolithic on the surface, but this wide spectrum of cowboy iconography indicates that one of the biggest myths is the idea of the monolith in the first place. We owe so much of the image of Cowboy and the Great American West to Hollywood that it’s only fitting that their legacies be intertwined. Hollywood is still a wild west for anyone who wants to become someone, a lawless place for gunslingers, hustlers, and roughs to try and make it. 

Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t just one of Hollywood’s last true movie stars; he’s its last true cowboy, reminding us with every role that the price of success is higher than we can truly afford. We purchased the ticket, and the cost was blood, no matter what the myths might say.

  1. I’m considering Allen’s Celebrity (1998) more of an ensemble film.
  2. While no one would argue the exploits of J. Edgar Hoover to be anything less than villainous, Eastwood’s portrayal of the man in J. Edgar is a more sympathetic, tragedian approach to the subject’s life.
  3. Honkytonk Man (1982), Pale Rider (1985), Unforgiven (1992), Cry Macho (2021)
  4. Stewart also created some of the genre’s best with John Ford, Delmer Daves, Henry Hathaway, and Don Siegel.
  5. Stewart, in a March 17, 1973 interview with Michael Parkinson: “After the war, the things that I had done before the war just weren’t going.” Drawn to the genre because “the Western is really an original of American films,” Stewart expresses that his career wouldn’t have been the same if it weren’t for Winchester ‘73.
  6. Prior to colonization, the American beaver population is estimated to have been upwards of 400 million, but by 1900 that number plummeted to approximately 100,000. It’s possible that silk top hats becoming fashionable is the only thing preventing the beaver’s extinction.
  7. Kevin Gover, “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” National Museum of the American Indian Magazine, 15.2 (Summer/Fall), 2014.
  8. Cast and crew discuss this obstacle during production in The Revenant: A World Unseen (2015), a behind-the-scenes documentary.
  9. DiCaprio initially wanted to call the documentary Are We F*cked?