The movie “The Revenant” is billed as a story of survival.
Yeah, kinda sorta. But before you celebrate the “survival” of Hugh Glass, read on.
The Revenant is inspired by an episode in the life of Glass, a pioneering mountain man in the 1800s in the wildest wilds of the American West.
In movie version of The Revenant – the word refers to a ghost-like character who returns from the dead to exact revenge – Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a member of trapping party collecting pelts on the upper Missouri River, in what is modern-day South Dakota. They are attacked by Indians, who are looking for a kidnapped daughter of an Indian chief (she’s not there). The Indians, from the blood-thirsty Arikara (a.k.a. the Ree) tribe also aren’t too happy, in general, about white men encroaching on their lands and slaughtering the wildlife.
A few trappers escaped the Arikara and tried to get back down the river to the safety of a fort. Along the way, Glass is attacked by a bear, and severely mauled. It appears he is likely to die, so two fellow survivors of the trading party agree to stay behind to give him a decent burial, while the others hurry to the safety of the fort with their remaining pelts. Glass’ sitters instead try to bury him (a bit prematurely, as it turned out) and skedaddle a little too soon.
While all this supposedly did happen, some embellishments in the movie aren’t really part of Glass’ actual story, i.e., his half-Pawnee son, the snowy terrain and bitter cold (the actual episode took place in August-September), close calls with other mercenaries and Indians, etc. (The movie was also principally filmed in Argentina and Canada – with some Arizona and Montana thrown in.)
As raw as the movie was in depicting Glass’ ordeal, his real travails were even worse: in real life, maggots feasted on his rotting skin, and his bearskin cloak was actually sewed to his back by sympathetic Indians, to cover where his skin was missing and his ribs were exposed.
Glass did drag himself through the wilderness more than two hundred miles to the fort, to confront his faithless companions. But the younger man, Jim Bridger (who would become a real-life legend among mountain men), was excused from Glass’ retribution, because of his youth. And the other man, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), had enlisted in the U.S. Army; which, as it turned out, prevented Glass from confronting and killing him – because a civilian couldn’t kill a soldier.
After all this, Glass didn’t exactly live happily ever after. He went back to the brutal life of a mountain man, trapping and trading, exploring the headwaters of the Missouri, Grand and Yellowstone rivers, and out-running vengeful Indians. But in 1833, his luck ran out and the Arikara finally caught up with him one final time, and hacked him to death.
So, how do you accurately characterize the tale of “The Revenant”? It is not, in the final analysis, a Homeric tale of survival, because Glass did not, ultimately, survive. It is not a tale of revenge, because the real Glass never got his revenge. The movie, in fact, is not a factual account of Glass’ travails; it is based on a 2002 novel by Michael Punke. Glass did not come back from the dead (like a true revenant); he was not “un-killable” or immortal, although his story has become the stuff of legend.
Although this may be the first time a lot of people have heard of Hugh Glass, it is possible to have heard or read about him previously without perhaps knowing it; elements of his life have been immortalized in poems, songs, non-fiction accounts, television shows and at least two movies (including Richard Harris’ 1971 portrayal of him in “Man In The Wilderness”). A statue in Glass’ honor has been erected near the site where he was mauled.
January 20, 2016