The second I discovered a movie was being made about Hugh Glass based on a novel by Michael Punke, I moved heaven and earth to get a copy.
(If moving heaven and earth means that I went to my local library.)
Originally skeptical about DiCaprio playing a mountain man, I devoured the novel.
Punke’s attention to detail was impressive, especially how closely it related to what I already knew about Hugh Glass as well as The Travels of Jedediah Smith.
Have I mentioned that I grew up loving my Dad’s stories about mountain men?
Last semester, I discovered Of Monsters and Men’s song Six Weeks, based on the epic crawl of Hugh Glass. I was ecstatic and used it for a song analysis activity in my class.
Pleasantly surprised that my students connected with the lyrics and music video, I told them about the movie that was coming out in January. Several told me they were going to see it, one actually found me last week to give me blow-by-blow details of the film – especially the bear attack.
I wasn’t the least bit jealous that he got to watch my movie before I did. (Liar liar pants on fire, right?!)
Yesterday, I finally made it to the theater. I dragged two friends who had no idea what The Revenant was about and we sat practically in the front row.
Spoiler Alert: from here on, details of the movie and criticism concerning deviation from history will be discussed.
The imagery was stark and beautiful. The dialogue was sparse, but I never found myself bored or wondering what was going on. The historicity, however, left me disappointed. Not so much that I didn’t enjoy the movie, not so much that I won’t recommend the movie, and not so much that I won’t see the movie again.
Why change history when it is already fascinating enough? What we know about Hugh Glass could fill a page, maybe two. The bulk of his life is a mystery: captured by pirates? lived with the Pawnee? had a Pawnee wife?
What is most definite is that in 1822, he – along with other soon-to-be famous mountain men – joined General Ashley’s fur trapping expedition on the Missouri River. Early in the expedition, the men were attacked by Arikara (called Ree in the movie) which caused them to abandon the river for an overland trip.
The movie sticks closely to these details, but has added two elements: Glass had a Pawnee wife who was killed by soldiers, they had a son who was with him on the expedition. Also, the Arikara are hunting the trappers, trying to find the leader’s daughter who had been kidnapped. Personally, I did not appreciate these two side stories, particularly that Glass had a son. More on this later.
While hunting, Glass came across a female grizzly and her cubs. The bear attacked and left Glass seemingly mortally wounded, though he was able to kill her with the help of Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald. Ashley believed that Glass’s death was imminent and asked volunteers Bridger and Fitzgerald to stay behind and give him a proper burial. Glass does not die quickly; afraid of another Arikara attack, he is stripped of his weapons and abandoned. When Bridger and Fitzgerald catch up with Ashley, they tell him Glass died and was buried.
In the movie, Glass kills the bear by himself. When Henry (Ashley, renamed) asks for volunteers, Glass’s son and Bridger volunteer to stay behind. As they were both youths, Henry wants an adult to stay, too. Fitzgerald volunteers after additional money is promised.
This is notable as until this point, Fitzgerald has been very antagonistic toward Glass and his son, threatening to kill them at several points. Despite this, the three are left with Glass.
While Glass’s son and Bridger are elsewhere, Fitzgerald asks Glass to blink if he wants a quick death; he blinks. As he is trying to suffocate Glass, the son attacks Fitzgerald, but is stabbed to death while Glass watches. Fitzgerald hides the boy’s body and lies to Bridger, convincing him to abandon Glass.
This deviation bothers me. To my knowledge, there is no record of Glass having a son, much less one who joined him on the expedition. This deviation also shifts Glass’s revenge: instead of chasing the men who stole his beloved gun and abandoned him to die, he’s chasing the man who murdered his son. I think that revenge against Fitzgerald and Bridger was sufficient enough to make an exciting movie. But without the focus on his dead wife and son, the movie would not have been able to take on surreal aspects and flashbacks, giving Glass a more conflicted history. Very interesting, but not necessarily factual.
In the movie, like in history, Glass does not die, he is survives on the desire to find and kill the man who killed his son. He crawls for miles, eating bone marrow and is eventually found by a lone warrior who helps him heal. With his strength almost regained, he infiltrates a French trapping camp and discovers a Arikara woman being raped. He helps her kill her attacker, steals a horse, and rides for Fort Kiowa where he hopes to catch up with Fitzgerald.
Meanwhile, a French trapper seeks refuge in Fort Kiowa with a story of a man who attacked their camp. The trapper has an artifact that Bridger and Fitzgerald recognized as belonging to Glass. Bridger volunteers to go with Henry to find the man; Fitzgerald stays behind in order to escape.
Glass crawled/walked 200 miles, mostly on his own, from where he was abandoned to Ford Kiowa. He did use the bear hide, he did eat bone marrow and berries, he did compete with wolves to get fresh meat, and he did use maggots to prevent spread of gangrene (disappointingly not shown in the movie!)
When he arrived at Fort Kiowa, Fitzgerald and Bridger were gone. He eventually found Bridger, but ended up forgiving him – supposedly for being young and influenced by the older (and more culpable) Fitzgerald. It is unclear if Glass ever found Fitzgerald. Some say he eventually found Fitzgerald after he’d enlisted in the Army and was therefore untouchable. He did manage to get his beloved rifle back, but was not able to enact full revenge.
The movie takes it’s most drastic deviation from history in the final scenes. The battle between Glass and Fitzgerald is fascinating, gritty, painful to watch, epic, but also completely made up. It was gratifying to see Glass able to enact his revenge and to see his life spared by the same woman he saved from rape, but then it just ends.
My friends and I wondered at the lack of some kind of “and this is what happened to them” scroll before the credits. To me, it felt as if the movie just ended, so I’ve added the post script here just for you!
Nothing is known of Fitzgerald’s demise; he could have died as a soldier or in a bar fight or as an old man surrounded by his grandchildren.
Glass returned to the frontier and died ten years later in an Arikara attack on the Yellowstone River.
Bridger went on to become a very famous mountain man, scout, and guide in his own right. He is credited for establishing The Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Fort Bridger, and discovering The Great Salt Lake. He died in 1881 near Kansas City.
Despite my criticism, I do recommend this movie. I am not surprised it has already been nominated for Golden Globe awards and I do hope it wins an Oscar or two. Despite my early misgivings about DiCaprio playing a mountain man, I think he did a fantastic job. Most of his role was silent, relying mostly on facial expressions and body language as well as grit your teeth pain that was palpable through the screen.
I do ask that in addition to watching the movie, you also do a little reading. The real Hugh Glass is fascinating enough on his own and if you’re lucky, a little history bug will bite you and you’ll find yourself reading about Jeremiah Johnson, Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, the Lewis and Clark expedition and a plethora of other historic people and places
- “Jim Bridger Born.” History.com. 2016. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jim-bridger-born.
- Lee, Stephen. “Arikara Man Was Adviser on DiCaprio’s “The Revenant”.” Capital Journal. January 11, 2016. http://www.capjournal.com/news/arikara-man-was-adviser-on-dicaprio-s-the-revenant/article_3c23e9c8-b8e9-11e5-978b-d720c8cbd8d9.html.
- Punke, Michael. “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge.” 2002. The Revenant on Amazon.com.
Sullivan, Maurice S. “The Travels of Jedediah Smith.” The Travels of Jedediah Smith. 1992. The Travels of Jedediah Smith on Amazon.com.
- “The Revenant Movie vs True Story of Hugh Glass, John Fitzgerald.” 2016. http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/revenant/.
Thorp, Jr., Raymond W., and Robert Bunker. “Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson.” 1983. Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson on Amazon.com.