Read the terrifying true story behind The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio went through hell to play indestructible fur trapper Hugh Glass in The Revenant. But how tall is the tale that inspired it?
What drives a person to survive in the harshest of conditions? That was the question Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu kept turning over in his mind during the making of his film, The Revenant.
The tale he wanted to tell was an epic on a personal scale: a man hunting beaver on the Missouri River is attacked by a bear, and left for dead by his party of fur trappers. This man, so incensed by being abandoned, finds the strength to crawl 200 miles in pursuit of his faithless friends, bent on exacting revenge.
Stories started to swirl off the set of the film in the summer. Crew spoke of enduring a “living hell”, of being forced to work in -25C temperatures, of travelling for hours to remote locations in Canada and Argentina to film for a mere 90 minutes, the result of Iñárritu’s decision to shoot only in natural light.
“If we ended up [using] green screen with coffee and everybody having a good time,” the Birdman director told The Hollywood Reporter, “everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of s---.”
Leonardo DiCaprio, who took the central role, had perhaps the most uncomfortable experience of all (discounting the extra who was dragged facedown and naked across an icy plain during a battle scene). DiCaprio’s sufferings in the name of art included spending the night sleeping in an animal carcass, plunging in and out of icy rivers and eating raw bison liver.
He was rewarded on Thursday with a Golden Globe nomination (one of four received by The Revenant, including Best Director for Iñárritu). The man whose life he was imitating – for The Revenant is based on a true story of sorts – enjoyed a far less glamorous existence.
Hugh Glass was a fur trapper, one of the hard-driving mountain men of the early 19th-century American West, an obscure cousin to more mainstream American folk heroes such as Davy Crockett.
Most of what we know of Glass’s life is conjecture: although he was literate, he left very little trace in the historical record. A letter survives that he wrote to the parents of a fellow fur trapper who was killed in a confrontation with the hostile Native American Arikara tribe. He is mentioned in the papers of some of his superiors, marking him out as a challenging employee, hard to handle. And we know he was attacked by a bear.
The bear attack is why Glass is remembered at all. The story became Frontier legend within months of its happening, set down in 1824 by a Philadelphia lawyer with literary aspirations, and carried to all corners of the United States in newspapers and journals.
Was it taken as a true account? Jon T Coleman, a professor at Indiana’s Notre Dame University, who has investigated the story, isn’t sure.
“I don’t know if they were that worried about the distinction between fact and fiction back then,” he says. “I think it was a great story and it cohered with an American vision of the West. Through this encounter with wild nature, men’s bodies were changed and became something else. They were no longer European or British – they were American.”
The attack – of which no direct eyewitness account exists – happened in the summer of 1823, five months after Glass had joined a fur-trapping expedition in South Dakota. Somewhere along the banks of the Missouri River, he stumbled across a grizzly and her two cubs.
Startled, she set upon him, ripping his scalp, puncturing his throat and breaking his leg. Hearing his cries, his companions rushed to help, although it took more than one bullet to bring down the enraged creature.
Glass appeared to be close to death. The party’s leaders decided that two of their number should stay with him until he died and give him a Christian burial. These were John Fitzgerald and a much younger man, Jim Bridger, played in the film by British actors Tom Hardy and Will Poulter.
For two days they watched over him, but, aware that with every passing day their fellow trappers were getting farther and farther away, Fitzgerald convinced Bridger to abandon Glass. They laid him in a shallow grave and departed. When Glass came to, he found himself alone.
Gravely injured, he somehow summoned the energy to drag himself to a nearby spring, the first step in a six-week-long crawl back to the nearest encampment. Baroque details began to accumulate in each subsequent telling of the story – and there have been many, from John Neihardt’s poem The Song of Hugh Glass (1915) to Frederick Manfred’s 1954 novel Lord Grizzly, to the 1970 film Man in the Wilderness, a trippy take on the tale starring Richard Harris.
Some said that Glass killed and ate a rattlesnake during his journey; that he awoke from a slumber to find a grizzly bear licking maggots from his wounds. The length of his crawl swelled from 80 miles to 100 miles to 200 miles. His back story became more elaborate: he had been kidnapped by the French-American pirate Jean Lafitte as a young man, had been captured by the Pawnee tribe and won his freedom with a pouch of scarlet vermilion powder.
Bloody and masochistic as all this is, it’s something of a disappointment when one reaches the story’s end, one which seems to stay the same in every telling. Glass does find Fitzgerald and Bridger, but instead of wreaking violent revenge, he forgives them both.
“This has been the most tricky thing for dramatists,” says Coleman. “Everyone gets tripped up trying to explain why he was so driven to destroy the men who left him, but then decides to show mercy and doesn’t end up killing anybody.”
How Iñárritu finishes his film remains to be seen. We can only hope that he, and DiCaprio, and everyone else involved, did not suffer in vain.