First Cow

First Cow ★★★★★

A few things struck me about FIRST COW. Firstly, as a Canadian historian it gave me great pleasure to see a film set in the fur trade period of North American history. Sure, the film is set in what will become the United States, being located somewhere in the Oregon Territory, but the fur trade era is of such vital importance to Canadian history. The fur trade is central to United States of America history as well, but it does not have the same central importance to the historiography of the southern nation as it does to that of the northern nation. Most frontier films are westerns, and are set in the arid plains and deserts of the Midwest and southwestern US, the lush rain forests of the Pacific Northwest are not often featured. Plus, it is quite clear that the Royal Western Pacific fur trade company is based on the Hudson’s Bay Company. Reichardt looks at this era to deliver a scathing criticism of the ultra-capitalist and mercantile roots of our North American society. The fur trade era of FIRST COW is a time and place solely focused on economic exploitation of the land and its people. It is a place where people (and by people in this case I mean solely men as this is an overwhelmingly male society) are led into the false idea that they can improve themselves through hard work and luck through either fur trading and trapping or gold prospecting, the thing is, it is all a lie. At the top of the economic and social pyramid is the chief factor of the fur trade post, a transplanted Englishman with refined tastes. However, his refinement hides his base nature as he exists for the sole purpose of ripping every ounce of economic wealth from the land and preserving his place at the top of this rough society. If he has to exploit and kill people to do so, well that is part of the job. In fact, this idea of the fur trade era representing a pure capitalist system also ignores the fact that the fur trade company is also a representative of the state, being the only “government” in the region (from a western, legal perspective). As such, the fur trade companies are also the recipients of a form of corporate welfare, and what could be more capitalist than that? They exist to exploit the land and to ensure the people are kept in their place. The result is a society that is mean, dirty and raw. A place where friendship means very little and is perhaps a sign of weakness. There are elements of the Jacksonian Frontier thesis in this as well as what a university history professor of mine described as his own “men are pigs” theory of western development - the idea that the frontier is a place of men and is therefore a place of selfish indulgence and that the frontier doesn’t develop or improve itself until women begin arriving in large numbers, bringing with them institutions such as schools and churches and ideas of temperance, moderation and restraint (not to mention cleanliness and hygiene). That is, and even the professor that described it to us admitted, a decidedly sexist and Euro-centric view of the west’s development, but there does seem to be a ring of sense to it. Interestingly, in history, the frontier must be tamed to make agriculture possible. Agriculture and the fur trade cannot exist in the same place, so, by bringing a cow into this world, the chief factor is ironically introducing the very thing that will bring down the economic system that he rules over. 

Reichardt brilliantly and beautifully captures this raw, mean and uber-masculine economic system and world view in FIRST COW, but instead of celebrating the masculinity of the frontier and the supposed heroism of the inhabitants of the frontier as pioneering spirits and exemplars of western civilization, as most western films do, she subverts it. The two main characters are outsiders. Cookie, the cook, is derided and dismissed as next to useless by most of the other men around him. He has soft spoken and almost painfully shy at times. He is also a cook, a womanly profession, and he has a decidedly unmasculine preference to cleanliness - he admires his new boots and keeps them clean, he sweeps out the floor of a shack he is staying in and he generally exhibits a better sense of personal hygiene than anyone around him. He keeps his prospecting party alive by foraging for food, yet they despise him because he engages in “women’s work.” He befriends King-Lu, a Chinese man, who, being Chinese, would have been viewed as barely human by all of the Caucasian, northern European people around him. Together, these two people, two people that don’t properly fit into the fur trade society, band together and challenge that society, first by simply existing as outsiders, secondly by forming a friendship in a place and time that sees friendship and loyalty as a weakness, and thirdly by challenging the economic system by stealing the milk from the societal leader’s prize milch cow. It is people like Cookie and King-Lu that will ultimately reform and better society, but at this moment they are alone and therefore ineffectual, doomed to be a spark of light snuffed out by the darkness, bring find in my the avarice and toxic masculinity of the society and, ironically, by their own bonds of friendship, which allow others to gain an edge over them.

All of this is being shown from a very EuroAmerican-centric view; there are few Indigenous people in FIRST COW.  However, they do exist in the film, but they are secondary to the story, existing on the fringes. Reichardt seems to be suggesting that the exploitation of Indigenous society has been complete and that they are now only minor players in this landscape that used to be theirs but is now pretty much wholly under the control of the mighty Euro-American economic powers. By this point of the fur trade, that is very much the case. The fur trade companies were no longer so dependent upon Indigenous people as they previously were. In FIRST COW, Indigenous people fill almost subservient roles.  I think that there is a fascinating sub text to FIRST COW regarding the role of Indigenous people, and I don’t want to seem like I’m avoiding it, but I’m not quite up to it at this moment. 

FIRST COW is a beautiful and heart-breaking film and a wonderful subversion if the frontier as a place of masculine heroism.

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