The Revenant: A Film Review

By Larry P. Madden

revenant movie jacketThe Revenant opened with much ado, not only as a foray into the western genre, but also as a Leonardo DiCaprio film. That the accomplished actor ventured into this near-abandoned genre created quite a stir. The tale itself loosely followed the Hugh Glass story, a Mountain Man story familiar to this reviewer who longed to be a trapper for most of his youth.  For the average viewer there’s much to enjoy, as it’s an adventure tale that has it all—conflict, greed, political overtones and personal grief.  

The film shows the standard American mythology of 1800s Indian country as the French are painted with a friendly brush.  In The Revenant specifically, the French and allied Indians are the enemies of the American contingent. The Arikara allied with the French and are the nemeses of the American Fur Company. The Pawnee, however, allied with American interests, as Pawnee warriors were recruited in large numbers to fight on the Northern and Southern Plains in various conflicts against hostile Native Americans. In this movie, and in history, the Indians allow the Hugh Glass character to have a mixed-blood son, another situation more common to the trapper than the standard settler. In this case, as in many tales, some artistic license has been taken in order for the story to meet Hollywood’s standards. For those not familiar with Hugh Glass, they might recognize the name Jim Bridger, who was 19 in 1823. This was a time in American history where trapping was the equivalent of the subsequent gold rush and the country of Canada was not the friendly neighbor to the north we know today. Instead, Canada was the haven for America’s enemies, the British, as the US was still smarting from both the War of 1812 and Britain’s attempts to start armed insurrections using Indian tribes across the Midwest and the Great Plains.  

As the story unfolds, this period in time gave rise to one of the most respected and storied times of American history— the era of the Mountain Man. This era was the direct result of Lewis and Clark's search for the Northwest Passage. Though they failed to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean, they did discover the Rocky Mountains. The Mountain Man was a new type of trapper, often referred to as a free trapper. These rugged individuals shouldered the expenses of trapping supplies instead of aligning with companies as was common in the past. On their own they undertook adventures unrivaled in American history. For the men who may be numbered but a few thousand, the tales of heroism and romance and struggle are only rivaled by the Greek tragedies.

This is not the first time a fictionalized version of the Hugh Glass tale has been told; back in 1939 the New Deal era Federal Writers Project published The Oregon Trail: A History of the American West, which included the Hugh Glass tale. In a review of the book, TIME magazine referred to Glass as “the angriest man in United States history”. Even with such a billing, the ending in the true Glass story is possibly the noblest part of the tale and I recommend that you look up how the real Hugh Glass handled his business.  

The Revenant, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is based on a novel of the same name written by Michael Punke in 2002. The film’s wide open western scenery is well worth the price of admission for the big screen effect. The river barges of the era on the upper Missouri River give one the feel of how hard these men worked just to come up river. The conflict between the French and American elements illustrates the way Indians were pawns in a much larger power struggle. Many people fail to realize these events were set on a global scale rather than just the Amerocentric thinking we all grew up with. With attention to period detail, the movie follows these adventurers on the wilderness trek for riches in a wild and beautiful landscape. The film’s battle scenes show a balance of might that is often lacking in past westerns, especially when dealing with Indian forces. The movie also alludes to the changing dynamic and total war tactics of the period. The treachery even between fellow trappers is the product of every man for himself, practiced by the free trapper of the time period. The test of fortitude is leveled against both Bridger and Fitzgerald as they try to wait out the impending death of Glass after the grizzly mauling teased at in the film’s ubiquitous trailer. At this point, Hugh Glass is about to enter his historic struggle and adventure.  

I enjoyed the movie. I found the period dress and the rivalry between the Arikara and the Pawnee to be historically accurate. The close cultural similarities between the Arikara and the Pawnee did not prevent conflict between these earth-lodge dwelling, corn growing, buffalo hunting peoples of the Great Plains. So check the film out and enjoy the story, the scenery, and the fact that a western is back at the big screen. After the credits roll, take the time to look up Hugh Glass and find the truth about this American story. The film is engaging, but the reality is awe inspiring.  

Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. He is a recent graduate of CMN who enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road. He’s found his recent enlightenment to the Arts to be quite satisfying.