A newspaper article on Glass' Bear attack

The man behind the Revenant


By now, thousands of film-goers in America and the UK will have seen Leonardo DiCaprio in the Hollywood epic “The Revenant”. The title of the film comes from the French verb “revenir”, meaning to return – specifically from the dead.

This particular production is an altogether physical one, based on the life of a 19th century trapper, Hugh Glass, who was abandoned along the Missouri river and left to die by fellow trappers after being savaged by a grizzly bear. In the film lives, as with fact, however, he survives. Whether or not he pursued a vengeance on those who had left him for dead is less certain.

The story on which the film is based was first recorded in 1824 by a Philadelphia lawyer and was soon retold in the newspapers and journals of the American frontier, and by word of mouth around the campfires of the South Dakota wilderness.

So yes, it was a famous tale of its time. But how much truth was there to it? Hugh Glass was a real person, certainly, but we know very little about him or his life. In a letter written in 1823 he does record the incident of the bear attack. He also says two members of his party were assigned to stay with him until he died, and then give him a Christian burial. But when he was still alive after this time, they abandoned him and tried to bury him alive. As in the film, he eventually came around and allegedly set out for revenge. To these statements, then, the film stays true, and successfully recreates the imagery of early America. The landscape photography is stunning and the film reaffirms the image Americans have of their tough pioneering forefathers and the early country they sought to tame. Independence, self-sufficiency, endurance and survival against all odds are all on display here. So yes, the film seems true to word; it may be the case that if anything we should wonder more about how true Glass’ recollection is rather than the cinematic adaption of it.

The film has a contemporary message for its American audience. Its theme confirms all that Americans believe about their past, and reminds them what made the nation great at a time when contemporary America has lost both status and power in the world.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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