The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s overdue Oscar vehicle, is a revenge tale lived by Hugh Glass in 1823. For a Hollywood production, it’s reasonably true to the sparse historical records that exist. Yet, Social Justice Warriors couldn’t help but inject their cultural necrosis to fill in the gaps and retell a folk legend, so it fit the Liberal narrative.
The maddeningly sparse promos for The Revenant appeared in about October of last year, promising an orgy of flintlock fueled gun-play, scalped white men, and Indian fighting. All of it due out in time for Christmas shopping and celebration of the Prince of Peace’s birthday.
Speaking of gifts and dead Indians, look to the right. My novel is the same genre.
Growing up, my local television station aired daily re-runs of The Adventures of Grizzly Adams and a plethora of horse-operas. Combine that with a love of history so intense that I threw my financial future to the wind and majored in it, I was thrilled to learn Hollywood was trying its hand at actual story telling again.
Hugh Glass is one of those historical figures that are difficult to research. We know very little about the man, and what we think we know has been embellished, retold, and distorted in a generational games of Chinese Whispers to the point it’s near impossible to say much of anything about Hugh Glass with certainty. Historians aren’t even sure of his place and date of birth or date of death.
Censuses chocked full of vital statistics and demographic information are a relatively recent development, and like most people of his time and place, Hugh Glass left precious little evidence of his life and adventures. In that sense, he was an average dude.
Staying alive, finding food, not catching cholera, and not freezing to death occupied a lot of his day. There wasn’t time to record for posterity what he would have likely seen as “nothing special.”
So, what do we know for certain about Hugh Glass? The short answer is, “Not much.”
We know he was on an expedition up the Missouri River in 1823 when he was mauled by a bear, left for dead, and some weeks later (it varies by source), turns up very much alive at Fort Kiowa. We know he was involved in at least two Indian attacks, the one that killed him and an Arikara attack, where he was wounded in the leg. The letter he wrote to the parents of one of the men killed in the attack mentions this wound and shows Glass was functionally literate.
Don’t get me wrong. There are all sorts of other facts about Hugh Glass that can be pieced together from various sources with a reasonable enough degree of certainty that historians can agree. However, there are enough conflicting sources, and complete lack of sources, that many details of his life are thrown into dispute.
And isn’t that part of the fun of being a historian?
These vagaries of history are not only the playgrounds where history nerds engage in flights of fancy they would never present as fact, but they are the fields in which writers grow their crops. I have a foot firmly planted in both arenas.
As a fiction writer, I am a professional liar, by definition. I never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Being trained as a historian, I try to never let a good story get in the way of the truth. How much truth and how much poetic license to allow in any given piece is a balancing act every fiction writer struggles with. Some more than others.
Taken by itself, on its own merits as a story, The Revenant is excellent. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end in a three-act structure with a clear progression of events and characters with clearly defined objectives.
History nerd that I am, the compunction to point out historical discrepancies in movies and on television absolutely ruins the viewing experience of anyone unlucky enough to be around me. It makes me a solid historical fiction writer, but a miserable date. I’m also not a fan of the way the Hollywood Liberals and Social Justice Warriors infect their products with their view of how the world should be.
I’m fixin’ to piss all over both of them for what they did with The Revenant, so y’all might want a refresher on the history, first. Go ahead. I can wait.
Depending on your definition, some spoilers might lie ahead, but if you’re unfamiliar enough of Mountain Man history to not know about its towering figures, the fur trade, and courers de bois in general, you really should stop Googling “Kardashians” and “big boob Korean school girls” long enough to pick up a history book.
This is as close to a trigger warning as you’re likely to get out of me.
The three principle characters, Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger, and John Fitzgerald, existed, as did the attack on Hugh Glass that looked vaguely like a bear raping Leonardo DiCaprio in the promos. We can look to modern bear attacks to see how horrific they are, and common sense would inform us Glass was not only non-ambulatory, but endangering the group. The decision to leave Glass behind is one of those “no-good-option” sort of choices that always damns the decider.
The witness accounts are consistent in Glass being on death’s door (at least, based on the medical knowledge of the period and the other men’s experience). The accounts are also consistent in the plan to wait for Glass to expire on his own and have the men who stayed behind rejoin the group. However, objection to that course of action is lacking from participant accounts. There may have been some who disagreed, but evidence of such has not survived.
John Fitzgerald is known to be one of the men left behind. Popular lore pegs Jim Bridger as the other man, and he was certainly on the expedition. However, the evidence that Bridger was “the young man” is not as clear. The pedigree is not as substantial and the chain from event to present is convoluted.
For the sake of clear storytelling and leaving discussion of historical minutiae to us history nerds, I can see glossing over this minor controversy. Other undocumented periods of Hugh Glass’ life, such as his capture by Jean Lafitte and Pawnee Indians are even more difficult to prove, as pirates and Indians are not exactly known for their scrupulous documentation; written or otherwise.
Most of these events are no better supported than my Grandmother telling me about her Grandfather achieving local notoriety along the Kansas-Nebraska border for having shot and killed two Indians.
Based on the time and place, it is entirely possible. Then again, after the numerous re-tellings, it is also possible that Great-Great-Grandpa merely spotted two Indians and shot at them. Knowing my family, either version is equally possible, and lacking independent corroboration from contemporaneous witness accounts, there is little that can be concluded with certainty.
Storytellers have told their stories since man began to talk. One of the reasons has to do with societal expectations, and helps explains embellishments. Tall tales are a social clue to the listener that says, “Should you ever find yourself in this sort of situation, this is what we expect out of you, young man.”
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of movies and books that venerate manliness and masculinity as admirable traits. The sorts of stories that lack inner turmoil over ethical questions. Men either struggle against other men, nature, or their physical limitations, but where what needs to be accomplished and the course to chart is never in question.
If you don’t understand that peeing on your buddy’s leg is simultaneously a manly show of affection and the funniest God-damn thing in the world, you need to read “War” by Sebastian Junger.
And that is where my biggest complaint about The Revenant lands. Not satisfied with survival as sufficient motivation, the writers felt compelled to stray far off the reservation, as it were, and shape a nearly two hundred year old story to fit their modern social narrative.
The only conclusion I can draw is that Hollywood does not see the life of a traditionally masculine man, who hacks and tears his livelihood from the wilderness, as worthy of sympathy from the audience. Contributors to this project, whether intentionally or not, send a very subtle message to viewers that mere life is not worthy of preservation.
I come to this conclusion from the strategic inclusion of Indians.
The main differentiation in The Revenant between Hugh Glass and the other courers de bois is a belabored emotional attachment to Indian culture via a murdered wife and son.
Hugh Glass may well have spent substantial time with the Pawnee, either though choice or coercion. He may have married into the Wolf Pawnee tribe and had children. Other men in similar time, place, and profession did just that. There simply isn’t a record that he did, and there is absolutely no surviving record of a full-grown son on the fateful expedition. A lack of evidence does not provide evidence of lack, if that makes sense, but no third man has ever been mentioned in any account.
Dramatic license, I suppose.
The movie wastes no opportunity to portray every trapper as, at best, indifferent to human suffering and, at worst, bloodthirsty, wanton marauders, who only have theft, rape, and murder on their minds. The only show of humanity by a white man, besides Hugh Glass, is a brief scene where Jim Bridger surreptitiously leaves behind a bit of food for a starving Indian woman, who’s village is still smoking after a being set ablaze during a raid by…you guessed it, white men.
You can tell an awful lot about a people by how they fill in the blanks of history.
Imagine if Beowulf were created in the United States today, instead of being the first known written saga.
While certainly remaining foreign, likely an indigenous Central American, Beowulf would almost certainly be cast as an LGBTQ trans-person of indeterminate ethnic origin and fluid gender identity…And quite possibly a shape-shifter, as well.
Modern Hollywood depictions of frontier interactions between Indians and Europeans tend to follow one of two patterns. A white man fleeing his past has his eyes opened to the superiority of indigenous culture and intercedes on their behalf against encroaching European settlement, so everyone can live in harmony or a half-breed Indian, who has strong ties to both words, must decide which side to support in a looming conflict.
As a writer, I get it. Nobody want to read about the day that nothing happened.
By the same token, The Revenant falls into the trap of portraying Indians as a class of victims fighting back against a class of oppressors. The collective cultural guilt of Hollywood has caused them to either forget or willfully ignore the facts that Indians expanded their territories, enslaved one another, and waged war against each other for the same very human reasons as Europeans in Europe.
It is nothing short of ancestor shaming fed to an audience that lacks understanding of history, imposes a modern sensibility on the past, and is generally self-loathing for being the beneficiary of past sacrifices and victories. We Americans have this funny habit of hating ourselves for our successes, and that tendency will be our downfall, if it isn’t abated.
And The Revenant is still a hell of a good story. Go see it.
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