The True Odyssey of Hugh Glass Versus The Revenant

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The true odyssey of Hugh Glass is a stupendously-thrilling action drama of one man’s tenacity to survive under the most horrific conditions that also serves as a lofty modern morality teaching of how redemption, forgiveness and transcendence can overcome the use of brute violent retribution and revenge.

Unfortunately, the Glass odyssey needs no further violent sensationalism for the sheer sake of sensationalism, factual distortion or revisionist history as portrayed by Hollywood’s latest action drama – The Revenant.

The Revenant, based in part on Michael Punke’s The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, claims to be a true story, loosely-based on the legend of Hugh Glass, a Scots-Irish American frontiersman who, in 1823, was among the first Europeans to explore the Upper Missouri River in present-day Montana, North and South Dakota and Platte River area of Nebraska.

However, every time another violent action Hollywood film comes along, such as The Revenant, and employs the disclaimer of being “loosely-based” on the truth, it’s a sure-fire red flag warning that Hollywood is about to again play fast and loose with the historical record. This one is written by its Director Alejandro Inarritu and Screen Writer Mark Smith who’ve employed their own brand of artistic license in The Revenant.

hugh glass news article
A century after the events unfolded, the Milwaukee Journal published an article about the exploits of Hugh Glass. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Serious students of Western American frontier history, and especially that of The Saga of Hugh Glass, are all too aware of this given reality in Hollywood film-making, as reflected by the oft commonly heard dismissive critique – “What else do you expect? That’s Hollywood!” Yet such a disclaimer shouldn’t always let Hollywood off the hook so easily from being accountable to the actual real factual record of whatever it is that is being portrayed.

When this writer, first learned of the production of The Revenant, a wave of great excitement and anticipation welled up because of what the Saga of Hugh Glass represents. It means something not only to Americans but people the world over in the 21st century, plagued as we all are by so much terror, violence and retribution. This is because the Hugh Glass epic is one of the most remarkable folk hero tales of human survival, endurance and resourcefulness that culminated in a lofty parable of how retribution and revenge can turn into forgiveness and transcendence. Yet The Revenant seemingly totally missed this most critically-important conclusion to the Hugh Glass epic tale.

Though The Revenant does make a credible attempt to factually document various aspects of the account, as much as is possible, given the many disparities and contradictions in the Hugh Glass folk legend, several serious falsehoods are embedded within the film that are flat-out falsehoods. These inexcusably detract from the authenticity of the film.

For starters, though Hugh Glass is known to have lived with the Pawnee Indians years before he joined the General Ashley Fur Expedition in 1823, some nineteen years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and learned many survival skills from the Pawnee that held him in good stead during his eventual harrowing survival tale, he did not have a Pawnee teenage son who accompanied him on the Ashley Expedition as portrayed in The Revenant. Furthermore, the son was not killed by John Fitzgerald when he and Jim Bridger stayed back with Hugh Glass after he had been mauled by a grizzly bear and lay on the verge of death.

When Fitzgerald and Bridger eventually abandoned Hugh Glass, thinking he was already dead or near-death, and stripped him of all the weapons, equipment and clothing he would need for his ultimate survival that alone created enough burning desire and motivation in Hugh Glass to fuel his basic instinct to survive and inflict retribution upon the two frontiersmen. No other contrived cinematic device was needed. So the film’s contrived murder scene between John Fitzgerald and the Pawnee youth was totally unnecessary artistic license, apparently inserted solely for the purpose of pandering to yet more sensationalized, senseless murder and violence that would sell more movie tickets.

Perhaps the most grievous historical transgression of all made by Director Inarritu and Screenwriter Mark Smith was when they inserted the blatantly untrue scene of a vicious knife fight that ensued between Hugh Glass and John Fitzgerald that, in point of fact, never ever happened. This fantastical make-believe violent scene totally denigrates and negates the most powerful moral of the Hugh Glass saga that forgiveness can ultimately transcend revenge.

Hugh Glass never did kill John Fitzgerald after he survived his harrowing wilderness ordeal where he had to crawl and stumble for months over several hundred miles of wild plains before floating on a makeshift raft several hundred miles more down the Missouri River until he reached Fort Kiowa that was located near present-day Chamberlain, South Dakota.

Once he had sufficiently recovered his health, Glass then traveled for the next two years hundreds of miles more to the U.S. Army Post at Fort Atkinson, Iowa where Fitzgerald by then had enlisted in the U.S. Army’s Sixth Brigade, to confront him and retrieve the rifle that Fitzgerald had originally taken from him. Since Fitzgerald was a U.S. soldier Hugh Glass quickly realized that if he killed him, Glass himself would have been executed for killing a soldier. So Glass constrained his desire for revenge and instead was satisfied when Fitzgerald returned his rifle.

Glass furthermore also travelled hundreds of miles more to track down Jim Bridger to where he was in Montana but also, in the end, forgave him for his cowardly deed because of his youth at the time. So The Revenant totally missed the whole redeeming point to this epic tale when it bastardized the ending with Hugh Glass’ murder of Fitzgerald.

One last glaring transgression was the decision to film The Revenant in the frozen wastelands of Canada’s Far North. The Hugh Glass survival story actually took place on the plains and prairies of present-day Montana, North and South Dakota and Platte River area of Nebraska, not the snow-bound, heavily wooded, rugged mountainous terrain of Canada. The choice of such a setting further detracts from the authenticity of the real story had it otherwise been filmed in some more appropriate setting.

Over the years, the Glass survival odyssey has been novelized and embellished in numerous books and dramas, among which include:

  • The Song of Hugh Glass that appeared in “A Cycle of the West,” a collection of five epic poems (called “Songs”), written over a thirty year span by John G. Neihardt. Each poem written as enjambled heroic couplets. Written in 1915, The Song of Hugh Glass is one of the five songs brilliantly recounted by Neihardt.
  • The Deaths of the Braves, written by John Myers
  • Lord Grizzly, written by Frederick Manfred
  • The Saga of Hugh Glass: Pirate, Pawnee and Mountain Man, written by John Myers Myers
  • Man in the Wilderness, the 1971 action film starring Richard Harris
  • Apache Blood, the 1975 film also loosely-based on the Glass story of revenge (Directed by Vern Piel, starring Dewitt Lee)

Most creative treatments of the High Glass story have focused solely or mainly on the aspect of revenge. But in the current 21st century, with so much rampant terror, violence and revenge being carried out against peoples everywhere, what the world desperately needs most at this moment are not more books and films that herald revenge but that instead herald forgiveness and transcendence.

Unfortunately, The Revenant falls far short!

Jerome Irwin is a Canadian author, who wrote The Wild Gentle Ones: A Turtle Island Odyssey. He once lived with the Crow Creek Sioux along the old Fort Thompson stretch of the Missouri River.