I finally got to see The Revenant this weekend on a DVD disk from Netflix. There is much to admire about this movie. Great performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Breathtaking imagery. And the scene in which DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is mauled by a grizzly bear is stunning filmmaking.
All and all I found The Revenant compelling. But in the end I was disappointed. The problem is my familiarity with the true story of Hugh Glass, epic without the embellishments layered on by the film. (For a reasonable recounting of the differences between the historical record and the film version of Hugh Glass’s story, see here.)
The film adds elements that I found distracting and even annoying. The emotional center of the film, the murder of Glass’s Pawnee wife by American soldiers and the subsequent murder of his son by one of his companions, is totally fabricated (there is no evidence he had a wife or that, if he did, she was killed in a raid; there is no record of his having a son, and even if he did have one, there is no way he would have been old enough to join in a trapping excursion). Knowing this as I watched the movie made me feel manipulated by the filmmakers. The real Hugh Glass crawled 200 miles, not to mete out noble justice for the death of his son, but simply to survive. Perhaps wanting vengeance for being abandoned by his companions fueled his desire to live, but in the end he never did kill anyone over his abandonment. He just returned to trapping until he was killed by Indians ten years later, in 1833.
There are two story threads involving a party of villainous French-Canadian trappers, and a noble band of Arikara Indians trying to rescue the kidnapped daughter of one of its own. These two strands are improbably woven into Glass’s story — making the vast wilderness of the American west seem a very crowded place.
I also found it gratuitous that the leader of the Arikaras makes a short speech about how the white man has stolen everything from them. Remember, this story takes place in 1823, before there has been much incursion by whites into far west. I doubt very much that the Arikaras or any other western tribes felt that everything had been stolen from them by the white man, yet. They surely did justifiably come to feel that way but that would not be for another 40 years or more.
Had this story been set later in the 19th century and not involved real-life, historical people, I would have appreciated it more. It is a good movie, but falls far short of the best mountain man film of all time, Jeremiah Johnson. That’s another movie based on a book, which is inspired by a true story. But both the novelist (Vardis Fisher) and the filmmaker (the great Sydney Pollack) use fictional characters, only taking the true story of Liver-Eating Johnson as a starting point.
Embellishments are necessary in telling Glass’s story, I suppose. Watching a man crawl 200 miles, no matter how heroic, would be a bore. But this film does not honor Hugh Glass, because it does not trust that his real story is worth telling. Instead it wraps Glass in a bearskin of supernaturalism, as visions of his fictional wife keep appearing to him until the ultimate villain in the story is dead. Then Hugh Glass stops fighting death and embraces it. The film ends in blackness as we hear Hugh Glass take his final breath.
The real Hugh Glass would have fought to the bitter end.
And a final thought: The wild west of the mountain man was violent and dangerous. But it was also a time and place of fabulous adventures. Mountain men, even those who made some money from their efforts, kept returning to the trade, drawn by the freedom of living among the fabulous beauty of the Rocky Mountains. The Revenant fails to acknowledge this, painting instead a bleak and miserable portrait of these men.
The sun never shines throughout the entire film.