The Revenant and the real Hugh Glass: how historically accurate is the film?

Set in the 1820s, Oscar award-winning The Revenant follows frontiersman Hugh Glass as he journeys through the American wilderness, badly mauled from a bear attack and abandoned by his fellow trappers. But how historically accurate is the film? Here, Professor Jon T Coleman investigates...

The Revenant. Copyright Twentieth Century Fox. (MovieStillsDB.com)

In the long middle of The Revenant, somewhere between the DIY throat-repair scene and the hero’s taking of shelter inside a dead gutted horse, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass happens upon a mountain of bison skulls. He stares up at the pyramid, dumbstruck by the carnage. The fog of his breath in the freezing mountain air communicates his sorrow. It’s one of dozens of terrifying and beautiful moments in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-nominated movie, and it underscores the existential brutality of Glass’s ordeal. He is not merely surviving a natural wilderness; he is crawling through a graveyard made by American violence, racism and greed.

The bison skull pyramid is historic. We know heaps of bones like this existed because photographers took pictures of them. The images that inspired the moviemakers haunt the internet on numerous websites. A professional hunter, Glass saw plenty of bison remains, but he never witnessed a gigantic pile of them. The craniums accumulated near western railroad depots for shipment back east to be ground up as fertilizer. Railroads, fertiliser factories and photographs were as alien to Glass as airplanes, technology parks and ‘selfies’. The pyramids and the business that spawned them belonged in the 1870s; Glass was mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead in 1823.

Hugh Glass being left to his fate having been savaged by a bear, 1978 (gouache on paper), Baraldi, Severino (b1930)/Private Collection/© Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images

The bison skulls represent the pastiche that qualifies as history in The Revenant. Inspired by real people and events, the movie collects basically accurate moments and scatters them around to create sensations of veracity. For example, the Arikara attack that opens the movie did happen; Glass and his fur-trapping colleagues did indeed swim for their keelboats to escape with their lives. If you watch carefully, however, you can spot a visitation from a ghost from the fur trade past that is out of time and place.

Just as the mayhem kicks off, a naked white man flashes (literally) on screen before being felled by a shower of arrows. At the sight of the man, someone yells “Colter!” This blip is a treat for mountain man buffs. A fur trapper named John Colter performed a famous nude run across the Great Plains in 1809 to elude a party of Blackfeet Indians who took his gun and stripped him bare. Colter was not with Glass and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company men at the Arikara battle. Colter was real, and he endured a hellacious western ordeal, but he did not belong in The Revenant.

The list of basically accurate but misplaced people, events and attitudes includes Colter; the bison skull pyramid; the United States Army’s attack on the peaceful Native American village; Hugh Glass’s wife and son; and the virulent racism of the film’s villain, Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald. Colter, the skulls and the US attacks on civilians existed in different time periods. Following the Civil War the US military targeted several Indian encampments in the winter, burning homes and killing women and children, to cripple the groups’ ability to feed and clothe themselves and to force them to return to reservations. The primary targets for this ‘total war’ strategy, however, were not the Pawnees – who often acted as American allies and worked as scouts for the US Army – but the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux. The assault that took Glass’s beloved Pawnee wife and set the stage for his revenge seeking was a fiction sprinkled with bits of true Indian history from a future period.


Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in 'The Revenant'. Copyright Twentieth Century Fox. (MovieStillsDB.com)

It would have been unsurprising if Glass had a Pawnee wife and child, but there is no proof that he did. Western fur traders and Indian women often formed partnerships and families to ease economic transactions. Likewise, slavery and racism were prominent features of the US in the 1820s, especially in St Louis, where the Rocky Mountain Fur Company gathered its employees. Western hunters, however, had a reputation for befriending and loving non-white peoples. The harsh racial divisions that Fitzgerald tries to enforce, and that Glass tries to instruct his son, Hawk, to tread lightly around, were not the only ways of thinking about race in the west of the 1820s.

But do these discrepancies matter? I, for one, enjoyed the movie and was blown away by the vision of Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The bear attack and the outrageous suffering Glass endured hit the historical mark with remarkable accuracy. And, in the end, unlike historians, filmmakers can always fall back on artistic inspiration to excuse moving piles of bones across space and time to create the perfect elegiac tone.

Given how little we actually know about Hugh Glass, movies like these are not without their own historical merit. Glass was not, after all, that accurate to begin with. We only have one of his letters and he never wrote or spoke about the bear attack, the crawl or his revenge with actual historical reporters. Storytellers therefore reconstructed the events from second- and third-hand accounts. And they reconstructed quickly and enthusiastically.

Glass was attacked by the bear in 1823, and by 1825 he had become a fictionalised character in stories published in a Philadelphia literary magazine and in eastern newspapers. The bear that gashed his body opened him up to artistic exploitation, and imagination flowed in and carried him into the future on tales composed by others. Glass comes to us as make-believe as well as history, and he demonstrates how art and life got mixed together from the start. The Revenant is the latest piece of culture floating in a storytelling current that started when a trapper accidentally stepped between a mother grizzly and her cubs.

Hugh Glass being savaged by a bear, 1978 (gouache on paper), Baraldi, Severino (b1930)/Private Collection/© Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images

The truth of Hugh Glass is far less satisfying than the fictions surrounding him. He pops into sight in 1823, signing an employment contract with the St Louis fur company run by William Henry Ashley and Andrew Henry. Later stories say that Glass came from Pennsylvania or maybe Scotland. Some tales say he was a sailor who was captured by the Gulf Coast pirate Jean Lafitte and that he escaped to join the Pawnees, who taught him how to hunt beaver and bison in the west. After the bear attack and recovery, Glass continued working in the fur trade. He appears in business records and is mentioned several times in letters and reminiscences. Glass was killed during a skirmish with the Arikaras in 1833.

The historic record of Hugh Glass was as bare-boned as a bison skull. There’s no proof where he came from or what he did before joining the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. His life post-mauling was better documented, but there is no diary or interview that offers a glimpse into his thoughts and passions. Dreams and stories have filled the blank spaces he left behind.    

Jon T Coleman is a professor at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, and the author of Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation (Hill & Wang, 2012). To find out more, click here. You can follow Jon on Twitter @lostjcoleman.

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