How historically accurate is the movie 'The Revenant'?

Poster of the movie

The movie The Revenant was critically acclaimed hit in 2016. It is a Western and it is based on the 2002 novel by Michael Punke. This, in turn, was inspired by a poem from the early twentieth century. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the biggest names in modern cinema. The supporting cast included the acclaimed British actor, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, and Will Poulter. It was produced by Akiva Goldsman and directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

The movie premiered just before Christmas 2015 and was very well-received by both the public and the critics. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and it eventually won three awards, including one for Di Caprio in the best actor category. The historical accuracy of the movie was widely discussed at the time of its release. How historically accurate is The Revenant?

Historical Context

The motion picture is set the Western United States in 1822-1823. This was an era when much of the American frontier was a wilderness peopled by often-hostile Native American tribes. The movie is set in the period when the fur trade was of great importance. In the movie, we see Di Caprio as part of an expedition that is hunting for furs in the Missouri Valley.

The movie expedition is based on a journey in 1822 by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, also known as ‘Ashley’s Hundred.’ The fur company was active trapping furs west of the Missouri River. The portrayal of the expedition is remarkably accurate. The movie shows how the group relied on canoes and boats to travel by river. The motion picture also shows how the boats were hauled overland to other rivers to allow the trappers to cover a vast area quickly.

Near the beginning of the movie, the Arikara, a Native American tribe, attack the frontiersmen and trappers. They killed many of the trappers and stole their furs. Only a handful of Americans managed to escape, into the wilderness. This attack was based on an actual incident that took place. In June 1823, men from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company was attacked by Arikara warriors. Several hundred Native America warriors attacked the band of 70 or so trappers.

Hugh Glass

A re-imaging of the grizzly bear’s attack on Glass

The Revenant is a biography of a real-life character by the name of Hugh Glass. In the movie, he is a hunter and a frontiersman. Hugh Glass was a real person. Glass was probably a Scotch-Irish hunter who signed on to join the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in an expedition into Indian territory. [1] Glass was one of the survivors of the Arikara warriors attack in 1823. He was actually wounded in this attack, which is not shown in the 2015 movie.

In the movie, after the Arikara attack, he accidentally stumbled across a she-bear and her cubs and was badly mauled. Due to the extent of Glass's injuries after the bear attack, Glass was near death. His companions believed he is going to die. They were also concerned that they would not be able to carry him to safety. After an initial attempt to carry him, his companions gave up and decided to abandon him. They believed it would be impossible to save him and they feared further Indian attacks.[2]

In the movie, Tom Hardy's character literally placed Glass into a grave. This actually happened to the real-life Glass who was left to die after the horrific bear attack. We then see Glass performing primitive surgical treatment on his wounds. This may also have actually happened. Then we see the badly wounded hunter making a crutch and beginning the journey back to safety. In the Revenant the man is shown struggling alone, trying to get home. Di Caprio’s character is able by shear strength of will and superhuman endurance to make his way back to American territory, specifically Fort Kiowa. This was true and Glass did manage to survive apparently insurmountable odds and did survive a 200-mile trek. In a real sense we see the central character coming back from the dead and he was in a real sense a Revenant.

However, the movie exaggerates the difficulties that were faced by Glass. He was abandoned by his comrades in the prairie and not in mountain county.[3] Moreover, he was forsaken by his fellow hunters during the summer and not in the depths of winter as shown. The tortuous journey of Glass, which is so beautifully photographed in the movie, did not happen as portrayed. In the movie we see Di Caprio escaping pursuing Native American warriors by throwing himself into a river. However, there is no real evidence for this and much of the details of Glass adventures, in the motion picture are fictional. The Revenant shows Glass being helped by a Pawnee, whose family have been murdered, this is no evidence that this occurred.

The Revenge

The Revenant is a revenge story. In the movie, rage drives Glass to survive impossible circumstances. This burning desire was something that was based on the real-life story of the hunter who was abandoned by his colleagues in 1823. The Di Caprio character wanted to avenge himself on his two former comrades, Bridges and above all Fitzgerald, who also killed his son before his very eyes. In the movie we see the Revenant, take his revenge upon the man who left him for dead. At the end of the movie, after he handed Fitzgerald over to Arikara warriors, we see Glass, finally die. In reality, the real-life Glass quest for revenge ended in a less dramatic and bloody fashion. Glass did track down those who left him for dead. He forgave Bridges when he caught up with him, on account of his youth.

In the movie, something similar happens. However, he found Fitzgerald but by then he had enlisted in the US army. This meant that he could not kill him, because he feared retribution from, Fitzgerald’s new commanding officer. He would have been hung if he had killed an enlisted man. Another version of the story goes that Fitzgerald was forced to pay 300 dollars to Glass by way of compensation.[4] It appears that Glass was not happy with this arrangement but seems to have stopped pursuing Fitzgerald. In the movie we see the Revenant dying after he had been avenged. In reality, Glass returned to trapping and hunting. Despite his ordeal, he actually joined another fur-trapping expedition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. However, two years after his miraculous survival, Glass was killed during a skirmish between some trappers and a band of Native American warriors, probably Arikara.

The characters

The route taken by Hugh Glass

The story of Glass, which was serialized in some early magazines and newspapers, in the 1830s is often regarded as leaving many important details out. What we can say is that characters such as John Fitzgerald were real-life historical figures. There was a character by that name, and he did seem to have been chiefly responsible for abandoning the victim of the grizzly bear. The other character who abandoned Glass was called Bridges, who seems to have been a real-life figure. However, nothing else is known about him and the belief that he may be the famous mountain man, Jim Bridger is wrong. The characters in the movie who cruelly left him in the wilderness to die, are based on real-life figures. In the movie, we see that Glass is married to a Native American woman who was murdered in a raid. In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for trappers and mountain men to marry native women in the West [5]. There is no evidence that Glass, was even married. Then the Revenant is shown as having a son, by the name of Hawk, who accompanies him and who survives the Arikara attack. In the movie he is murdered by Fitzgerald in cold blood. There is no evidence that Hugh Glass had any children. Moreover, this means that the scene in the movie where Fitzgerald heartlessly murders the son, simply could not have happened.

Anachronisms

The movie is set in a specific historical period. Despite the movies painstaking efforts to be historically accurate, there are a number of inaccuracies and anachronisms. In one scene Fitzgerald states that he is going to Texas and maybe join the Texas Rangers. The Rangers had not been created at this time and Texas was still at this date, Mexican territory. In another scene, which is beautifully shot, we see the Di Caprio character, viewing, in horror, a mountain of bleached buffalo skulls. Such grizzly mounds were a result of the overhunting of buffalos by professional hunters. However, the mounds which actually became quite common, are a feature of the post-Civil War period and not the 1820s. In the movie, we see how US Cavalrymen raiding the home settlement of Glass and his wife. They murdered his wife and many other inhabitants. While such raids did take place, they were not a feature of the frontier in the 1820s. These terrible tactics became a feature of the American strategy to pacify Native American tribes in the 1870s and after. [6].

Cultural accuracy

The motion picture’s director and cast were determined to ensure that Native American tribes were accurately portrayed. It hired a number of Native Americans as consultants particularly those from the Pawnee and Arikara tribes. This ensured that the customs and the practices of the Native Americans in the movie are largely accurate. They are even able to speak in the movie in the Arikara and Pawnee language. The way of life of the frontiersmen is also very accurate. Iñárritu’s movie really captures the dress, guns, boats and other features of the people who lived in the West in the 1820s. One of the most controversial features of The Revenant was the portrayal of French-Canadian trappers. In the movie, a band of French hunters is shown as raping a Native American woman and also killing an innocent man. While many French-Canadians did commit atrocities in the West, in general they had good relations with them. They were more likely to trade with the Native Americans and typically did not seek to take the land of the Arikara and other tribes. Indeed, the French-speaking trappers were considered to be much more tolerant of Native American culture and practices than English-speaking settlers, hunters and trappers[7].

Conclusion

The Revenant is a justly acclaimed movie and compared to many other movies about the period it is very accurate. Its presentation of life on the Western frontier and the culture of Native America is by and large much more accurate than motion pictures on the period in the past. The movie is based on the amazing adventures of a historic hunter and frontiersman Hugh Glass. He is a rather shadowy figure, and little is known about him. The movie does accurately reflect his amazing story of endurance and survival. Glass as in the movie did survive a grizzly bear attack, was abandoned and managed to make his way to safety. As in the movie- the real-life Glass was abandoned by his colleagues. They believed that he was going to die and felt that he was placing them in danger. The movie is a revenge story and this too, is also historically accurate. However, the movie does not stay faithful to the story of Hugh Glass in key respects. The historical character did seek out those who abandoned him, but he did not kill them. Moreover, he did not die as portrayed in the movie. Some of the characters in the movie are fictional such as the central characters son and wife. Many of the details of his adventure are exaggerated and incorrect. Overall, the movie is fairly historically accurate and is loosely based on the remarkable story of the frontiersman and his amazing feat of survival.

Further Reading

Utley, Robert M. After Lewis and Clark: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific. U of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Palmer, Rosemary Gudmundson. Jim Bridger: Trapper, Trader, and Guide. Capstone, 2007.

References

  1. Myers, John Myers. The saga of Hugh Glass: Pirate, Pawnee, and mountain man. (Omaha, U of Nebraska Press, 1976), p 113
  2. Myers, p 89
  3. Myers, p 78
  4. Myers, p 78
  5. Swagerty, William R. "Marriage and Settlement Patterns of Rocky Mountain Trappers and Traders." The Western Historical Quarterly 11, no. 2 (1980): 159-180
  6. Hine, Robert Van Norden, Robert V. Hine, and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A new interpretive history (Yale, Yale University Press, 2000), p 119
  7. Hine, p. 213