“The Revenant” has already won a Golden Globe award and is nominated for Best Picture in the Oscar awards. Star Leonardo DiCaprio won his Golden Globe statue for Best Actor and is up for the same award at the Oscars. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has also received numerous awards. The visceral, hauntingly beautiful, laconic film is unlike any other release this season and has mesmerized viewers.
The film is based on a true story, but only loosely. Hugh Glass was indeed mauled by a grizzly bear, abandoned by friends, but survived a long trek in the woods, and confronted his betrayers. However, that is as much truth as the movie contains. Glass did not have an Indian wife and son. Therefore his friend did not kill his son nor did Glass kill his friend in revenge for a murder.
The historical facts are recorded in Michael Puske’s 2002 novel and in a 1939 book titled “The Oregon Trail.”
Glass, a 19th century trapper, was born in Pennsylvania in 1783. He spent his early youth as a pirate and then lived with the Pawnees. In 1823 he joined Andrew Henry’s fur trapping expedition in South Dakota as a guide and scout. In August 1823 he was mauled to near-death by a grizzly. Two of Henry’s party, Tom Hardy (called Fitzgerald in the movie) and 17-year-old Jim Bridger agreed, for $80 each, to stay with Glass until his death then bury him.
Instead the men threw Glass into a shallow grave and made their own way back to Fort Kiowa, taking Glass’s prize rifle and all his goods. Glass did not endure a brutal winter but he did have to survive a vicious summer. His flesh rotted, he had to avoid hostile natives, and he barely made it back alive to Fort Kiowa, 200 miles from where he was attacked. He forgave Bridger because of his youth, but demanded justice. The courts gave him back his rifle and $300, but he could not avenge himself against Hardy, who had joined the military.
The ending of the movie is ambiguous. Glass has a vision of his native wife and then the picture fades to black. Viewers are left to decide whether Glass, having obtained revenge, will die and join his wife. Actually, Glass roamed New Mexico and Arizona until 1833. He was at Big Horn River in Montana and was killed and scalped by Ancickar Indians. He lies somewhere in an unmarked grave.
According to “The Oregon Trail” all of this story may be myth. The natives of South Dakota perpetuated the story about the trapper who survived a grizzly bear attack, but in letters and journals, some trappers and acquaintances of Glass described him as never-do-well, unable to sustain a marriage, dull and given to fruitless rambling.
Although “The Revenant” plays loose with Glass’s story, the movie nevertheless provides a new and powerful look at frontier life in the 19th century. The conflict between French and American fur trappers is historically accurate. The brutal life of fur trappers is told vividly, emphasizing the drive purely for money, the willingness to betray friends, and the unconcerned abuse of the natives.
Also told in a way largely new to the screen is the story of the struggles the natives endured. The careless disregard of the Europeans and Americans for native women, their rape and often murder, shows vividly how the women were considered less than chattel. The introduction of rifles and horses by the trappers disrupted the traditional values of the natives, as did the bringing of alcohol and disease. The natives are not shown as innocent and faultless people, but argument is made about why they sought revenge. Their devotion to family and tribe are evident and realistic.
The film raises very clearly the nature of revenge and justice. It leaves unanswered how the viewer will respond.