The Revenant as Historical Reinvention

In time, The Revenant might be best remembered for an underlying historical question although for now it deserves special attention as a current cultural phenomenon. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the role of frontiersman Hugh Glass with great conviction, delivering an impressive physical performance that few actors would even attempt. In order to capture the perfect mood for this ambitious recounting of an American legend, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu relied on natural lighting to showcase an astonishingly diverse variety of rugged terrains in Canada and Argentina that still resemble what the northern United States might have looked like in 1823. It’s hard to imagine better cinematography. Iñárritu also forced his cast and crew to contend with severe conditions on a regular basis in order to duplicate what trappers and hunters felt. Thus, the actors’ performances show genuine fear, anger, despair, and hope, as audiences have noticed.

As a period piece, The Revenant peers into a more brutal era to expose the degree of peril people were willing to accept in order to actualize their force of will. For instance, greed defines action throughout the film. Most trappers in Glass’s area of operations understood the enormous risks they ran in hunting and trapping near the hostile Arikara tribe, but they did so anyway, often undermanned and far from supply lines. Sometimes, the trappers proved dangerous to each other and sided with Native American tribes against other trapping parties for power, profit, and women.

An interminable desire for vengeance shapes the storyline as well. Left for dead after a bear attack, Glass manages to return to the safe confines of a friendly outpost in order not only to recover some energy, but to exact revenge on John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy), the antagonist who killed his son and left him to die in the wilderness. Glass risks his life repeatedly for the opportunity to balance the scales with Fitzgerald, a life (his son) for a life (Fitzgerald’s).

The will to survive infuses the film with meaning. Glass has to fight a bear, the elements, and other humans in order to live another day. Not only does the film focus on how far a singular person can take his primitive drives, it also asks each one of us how much primordial drive we might be able to muster during sustained periods of sheer desperation. The implication that one’s character is one’s fate doesn’t speak well for a modern culture that obsesses over feeble concerns. What would Hugh Glass think of trigger warnings on college campuses, for instance?

Maybe future generations will remember The Revenant as a historicity study that says more about our era than the actual events the film recreates. In simple terms, historicity means “historical authenticity.” The problem with this definition is that historical analysis is unstable by default. It’s always reliant on limited data and often collated and presented by those in power, which means it’s usually shaped by an endless train of agenda-driven motives. Accordingly, when it comes to period piece films, various expectations (the director’s / the audience’s / Western Culture’s) shape the screenplay, settings, and performances into something other than what actually happened.

Historical inaccuracies in the dramatic arts aren’t inherently bad, at least as most people see it. If they were, then what would we do with Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III, or Homer’s personifications of the Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad? Audiences love a good story and are often willing to suspend disbelief. Still, observing how far a period piece departs from its basic historical roots proves instructive and can sometimes define the values of the current era. We see this in The Revenant. As brilliant a film as it is, at times it proves unrecognizable from Hugh Glass’s life based on his most verifiable historical credentials, and as such, it delivers some telling messages.

One notable historical error regarding the Hugh Glass legend is the exaggeration of hardship. Various accounts of Glass’s trek grew further removed from actual events as the years passed. For instance, there’s a spirited debate over the length of his nightmare journey. Some claim that he crawled and staggered anywhere from 200-300 miles from his bear encounter to Ft. Kiowa. A potentially more accurate measurement indicates that the real distance was more like 80 miles. Moreover, Glass made the journey in the summer, not the dead of winter. Ironically, these fact checks make Glass’s accomplishment more imaginable and therefore more impressive. People have been misrepresenting human accomplishment through the Arts for at least as long as Gilgamesh. False impressions can be inspirational, no doubt, but they can also be delusional.

The film’s most glaring departure from reality has to do with Glass’s family life. In essence, he didn’t have one. There’s no evidence that he married a Pawnee woman or had a son, yet this scenario frames the revenge theme that plays such a prevalent role in the film, to include several useless dream sequences. Moreover, Glass actually forgave Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald. Think of how different the ending would have been had Iñárritu maintained historical accuracy in this regard. But solitary motivations and redemptive forgiveness almost never sell as well as tragic love stories and revenge. In short, The Revenant is a fine movie that, despite some flaws, does what it has to do to find an audience.