It is an odd feeling of closure for me that the world is finally becoming aware of the remarkable story of Hugh Glass though Alejandro Inarritu’s brilliant film, The Revenant. As everyone who sees the movie, I was deeply moved by Leonardo DiCaprio’s intensely nuanced portrayal of Glass. The film has also lingered in my thoughts for days as an ironic justification for me personally, because I will have no longer have difficulty explaining how the story of Glass’s encounter with the grizzly bear and his crawl for revenge could capture the imagination of a 20 year-old idealistic, fledgling balladeer. Perhaps after seeing The Revenant people will have a better understanding of my career-long commitment to this frontier drama as well as all the other interpretations of historical personalities, events, and eras in my trilogy, A Ballad of the West.
Still, it is important that I stress here that the single aspect of Glass’s story that held my interest for a half-century is much deeper than the visceral horror of a bear mauling. The heart of the story for me is the act of Glass’s forgiveness of Jim Bridger for betraying him. Having spent 50 years digging into, writing about, and portraying the story of Hugh Glass on disc, stage, and video, it is surrealistic, confusing, and artistically hypocritical for me to write my impressions of The Revenant. As a historian and a playwright an invitation to evaluate my impressions of The Revenant is a challenge I welcome.
The Revenant is as visually stunning as it is fiercely metaphysical. It is simply brimming with passion. I enjoyed Leonardo’s strong performance as Hugh Glass, as well as Tom Hardy as the bitter, conniving John Fitzgerald. Will Poulter was also an outstanding Jim Bridger and they all employed similar characterizations to those that I used in my ballad Seekers of The Fleece. In the opening act, the battle with the Arikara Tribe was, in my opinion, the best-choreographed battle scenes of the period ever filmed. The bear mauling scene was a brutally primal ballet and I was mighty impressed with the realistic nuance Inarritu and DiCaprio fused into the choreography of the attack. A great example of this is that every historical description of the mauling refers to the bear’s multiple attacks on Glass, with each separate charge inflicting terrible wounds. When at last Glass kills the bear with his knife and she falls directly upon him, the film has accurately depicted nearly every historians interpretation of the mauling since the tale first began to make the rounds of trapper campfires.
Now, however, I must differentiate between The Revenant and my epic ballad Seekers of the Fleece. Though Hugh Glass is a pivotal character in “Seekers”, my ballad is not specifically about Hugh Glass. Instead, “Seekers” is about my relative Jim Bridger, and his relationship with the characters of the historic Ashley-Henry Fur Expeditions of 1822-’23 who became known as “mountain men”. In The Revenant Glass is portrayed as having learned from an Indian companion he meets during his epic trek to surrender his rage for revenge to a higher power, but the aspect of forgiveness, vital to my interpretation, remained absent in The Revenant. Unfortunately, it was the logical course of the screenwriter’s scenarios set in motion earlier in the film with devices that I simply differ with both historically and artistically. Some accounts of the fateful meeting say that Glass beat young Jim severely when he caught up with him. But in all accounts Glass forgives Jim after his very presence forces the boy to admit his cowardly betrayal. The true historical character Jim rose to become deserved a better ending in The Revenant that the whipping Major Henry administered. He deserved to be forgiven by American’s true mountain man, Hugh Glass.
It is indeed hypocritical for me -or anyone else- to critique The Revenant as all of us -poets, historians and playwrights- are merely interpreting the life of a man that history actually knows virtually nothing about. Aside from the legends surrounding the mauling, the historical Hugh Glass is practically a phantom. That said, I would have preferred artistically to see cinematic devices creating more of his dream-allusions to Glass’s legendary historical “backstory” of his adventures as a pirate in Gulf of Mexico during the War of 1812 before jumping ship, venturing onto the Great Plains and being taken captive by and living with the Pawnee. Then, Glass’s involvement with indigenous people would have been more than perfunctory and the character of the Pawnee son the screenwriters created as a simple revenge device would have made more sense that just as a character who exists only to be killed to add to Hugh’s determination to survive to avenge his son’s murder.
The last fifteen minutes of the film bothered me a great deal. Until Glass’s return to Major Henry and the trapping partyThe Revenant was a very different kind of western; one that raised the bar high above the old cliche. Sadly, the ending, even while attempting to surrender its intense rage, became an old western cliche in which Americans expect their revenge tales to be settled with blood rather than words. Thus we see again that legendary American characters like Hugh Glass return generationally to create mythology that reflects the culture of our times. The Revenant now joins the current spate of survival films coming out of Hollywood such as In the Heart of the Sea, Into the Wild, Wild, and The Martian -each of them reflections of our conscious and subconscious concern about increasing environmental uncertainty.