The Revenant and Real History

Author: Tim Hoheisel, HMA Cultural

I had some spare time this week so I went to see the movie the Revenant. I knew what I was getting into, and it was pretty much what I expected—a little history and a lot of blood and carnage. Many people unfortunately think when they see a historical fiction movie they assume that it is historically accurate and they might learn something. The movie is advertised as being “inspired by true events.” That is a fitting description, and your first hint that it is not real history. There was a person named Hugh Glass and he was attacked by a bear. The movie makes many “creative” departures from the real story.

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The Revenant apparently is a pretty big deal at the box office right now. Leonardo DiCaprio is nominated for some awards or something and it’s making Hollywood executives millions of dollars. People are writing all kinds of reviews about the movie online so I thought I’d chime in, too. As a professional historian I am happy to see history make the leap to the big screen. But as a historian I am also unhappy that too much fiction gets mixed in with facts leaving viewers unsure about the real story, which is kind of ironic since even as historians we don't know all the facts about Hugh Glass. 

It is well known that Hollywood likes to play fast and loose with facts in historical stories. Stories about revenge with lots of fight scenes and blood sell more tickets though. Hugh Glass was a fur trapper on the Plains in the early 19th century. He did live with the Pawnee for a time but there is no record of him having a Pawnee wife. We do know that he never had a child, with or without said Pawnee wife. Yes, he was attacked by a bear, though there were no eyewitnesses to the event. He did survive and John Fitzgerald and a young Jim Bridger stayed behind to bury him when he died. When Glass didn’t die, Fitzgerald and Bridger did in fact place him in a shallow grave, took his weapons, and left to catch up with the rest of the expedition. The bear attack happened in summer, not winter, and near present-day Lemmon, South Dakota. There are no mountains, or cliffs nearby, as seen in the movie, just the grasslands and the Missouri bluffs. I could go on and on about how the real story differs from the Hollywood version but that is beside the point.

The  Grand River National Grassland , what the landscape would have looked like where Hugh Glass was attacked by a bear. 

The Grand River National Grassland, what the landscape would have looked like where Hugh Glass was attacked by a bear. 

Hugh Glass doesn’t fight it out to the death with Fitzgerald. Viewers are lead to believe that Glass also dies at the end of the movie though we don’t know for sure. Perhaps we are left hanging in case Hollywood feels compelled to make a series of sequels: “Hugh Glass' Revenge Against the Bears,” or something equally trite and nonsensical.

The most significant departure comes at the end of the movie.  The true story about Hugh Glass, from what we know, is a story about forgiveness, not revenge. Glass does eventually find Fitzgerald at Fort Atkinson, Iowa. Fitzgerald had enlisted in the U.S. Army’s Sixth Brigade and had Glass killed Fitzgerald, Glass would have been hung for killing an American soldier. Glass also eventually catches up with Jim Bridger in Montana and forgave Bridger, whom Glass thought young and naïve at the time of the bear attack so Glass spared Bridger as well.

Glass lived for another ten years after the bear attack before he died. He and two companions were reportedly killed in Montana by Arikara Indians. Incidentally, Bridger went on to become one of American history’s most famous mountain men, trappers, and scouts. He became a legend in the “Old West.” Glass, however, remained a nobody, until Hollywood discovered his story. More about Jim Bridger here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Bridger

Ultimately, The Revenant takes little from the actual Hugh Glass story for the movie. Why? What are we to make of this? And how does it relate to museums?

We as Americans hold the myth of the “Old West” in high esteem, still, though it always was and is a fabricated myth. The wild west wasn’t that wild. American Indians weren’t bloodthirsty savages. Even gun fights from “Old West” movies didn’t happen nearly as often as they do in the movies. We like the tales of the Old West because they make us feel unique as Americans. Frederick Jackson Turner wrote that the west is where America became America, where we tamed the wilderness and created our own form of democracy. Turner’s misguided frontier thesis has been refuted so many times I don’t need to do it again here. Needless to say, triumphalist Old West stories pump up the mistaken and contrived theory of American Exceptionalism. We are better than everyone else, so the theory holds—tougher, more self-reliant, more heroic, etc. The winners, white Euro- Americans—the good guys—are usually glorified and the losers, Indians, and others who stand in the way of American progress—the bad guys—are disparaged. Same old same old. But it sells movie tickets! 

There are seemingly endless accounts of real historical stories turned into triumphs by Hollywood. One that irks me the most is Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. It is a great example of American Exceptionalism gone haywire. The movie takes a tragic event, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and turns it in to a miraculous victory for the U.S. military when Doolittle’s Raiders bombed Tokyo on April 18, 1942. The Tokyo Raid happens four months after Pearl Harbor yet in the movie viewers might think it happened a few days later. Oh, and don’t forget the love triangle thrown in for good measure. The tragedy of Pearl Harbor is turned into a U.S. victory in the movie though Doolittle’s raid did little damage to Tokyo. It did boost American morale, which was the point all along. The movie reinforces our false sense of American Exceptionalism. 

Museums

Museums sometimes, unfortunately fall into the same Hollywood trap—not propping up American Exceptionalism, but treading a fine line between history and entertainment. Usually this is done to attract visitors, and hence revenue. But do museums even need to do it?

There is much in our society competing for peoples’ leisure time and museum people sometimes think that they need to do something extraordinary and more entertaining to be relevant. Attendance at the largest museums in the world is skyrocketing, some to the point that cooling systems can’t keep up with all the people in the building (see my previous blog post here www.hmacultural.com/blog/2016/1/5/museums-are-more-popular-than-ever) However, that is a small number of museums, the rest are struggling. Some have found that sticking to authenticity is the best way to go, and I agree.

The Missouri History Museum has seen increased visitation by focusing exhibits on local history, not blockbuster shows. Museums can offer something movies can’t—authenticity, REAL history. I can go to a theater and watch a fictional movie about Hugh Glass that contains little history. Sure, it’s entertaining, or at least to some people (personally I thought it was boring and unimaginative). Or, I can go to the museum of the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre and see an actual letter that Hugh Glass wrote.

Above is an original letter from Hugh Glass to the parents of John S. Gardner, killed on June 2, 1823 during the famous Ashley Expedition. It is in the collections of the South Dakota State Archives and currently on display in their Research Room here at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center. www.capjournal.com/news/only-letter-from-hugh-glass-under-glass-now-at-sd/article_8b3fa9c6-c0cc-11e5-afbb-6ff64a6954dc.html

So What? As historians we use our methodology of primary document research to tell a story. We stick to the facts in order to make an interpretation. We try to consciously be as unbiased as possible in writing history. History museums do the same thing except with real artifacts at their disposal they can make history more visual. They still need to stick to facts in order to portray a story to avoid biased pitfalls like American Exceptionalism. Our history is rich enough that we do not need to inflate it for the sake of selling tickets. That is Hollywood’s job.

Watch a movie like the Revenant to be entertained because that is all that it is—entertainment. Don’t assume that you are going to learn something about the Old West, or Pearl Harbor, or the Civil War or whatever the movie is about. To learn something real read a historical monograph or go to a museum. Frankly, I don’t know why a movie like the Revenant couldn’t stick to the accurate story of Hugh Glass. Surviving a bear attack in 1823 and crawling nearly 200 miles across the Plains to safety is a pretty fascinating story. We don’t need to embellish or exaggerate our history for it to be entertaining. The real story will suffice, at least for me.

Hugh Glass memorial, near Lemmon, South Dakota

Hugh Glass memorial, near Lemmon, South Dakota