American creation myth
To complete our reviews of the trio of Westerns that came out in 2015 (the other two are Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight) which are now available on DVD, a word or two on The Revenant.
Back in May 2013, in a post on Jim Bridger, I wrote a little about the ordeal of Hugh Glass. I didn’t know then that they would make a movie about Glass, still less an Oscar-winning epic with Leonardo DiCaprio. But the story of Hugh Glass is certainly a dramatic one.
Westerns don’t win Oscars. Oh, there were a few notable exceptions, like Cimarron and Unforgiven, but as a general rule even undeniably great pictures like High Noon or The Searchers didn’t get near the Best Picture award. So when The Revenant won Best Motion Picture last time round (and several other Oscars too, including Best Actor and Best Director) well, that was good news. If, that is, you regard The Revenant as a Western - it’s an 1820s mountain-man story. I do, because it has several Western aspects to it – a difficult journey in the wild, a brave loner determined to right wrongs, hostile Indians and a revenge pursuit, for example.
It was directed and co-written by Mexican Alejandro G Iñárritu and based on the 2002 novel by the multi-talented Michael Punke. The movie does play a bit fast and loose with historical fact but we don’t hold that against Westerns, do we? They are not supposed to be documentaries after all. The point is that it makes a gripping story.
Alejandro G Iñárritu
The two lead personages are Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Their characters are established right from the get-go: Glass is taciturn, tough and a bit of an action man (a classic Western hero, in fact) while Fitzgerald is snide, sour and hyper-critical. They don’t develop, really: they remain that way throughout.
Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald
A young Jim Bridger plays an important part, though. He is played by Will Poulter, 22 (Bridger was 19 so that will do). The question of whether Bridger deserted Glass is not skated over but it is rather excused because of his young age, and blame squarely apportioned to Fitzgerald. Glass himself did in fact pardon Bridger, just because of his youth. Jim Bridger has appeared often in movies, starting with the silent movie The Covered Wagon in 1923 when Tully Marshall took the role, which he reprised in the talkie Fighting Caravans in 1931. Most Bridgers were absurdly false (e.g. Van Heflin in Tomahawk) so it’s good to have a plausible Jim, as here. Glass has also appeared on the screen, small and big, impersonated by John Alderson in Death Valley Days and Richard Harris in Man in the Wilderness (though he had a different name in that epic). DiCaprio’s is certainly the most authentic so far, despite the monkeying about with history.
Will Poulter as Jim Bridger
The movie opens with action, as the trappers’ camp is attacked by Arikara Indians and Glass gets the survivors (including Fitzgerald and Bridger) to the river boat and relative safety. The attack on Glass by a grizzly is brilliantly filmed. It’s utterly realistic. I have no idea how they did it, CGI I suppose, but it’s outstanding. Glass’s injuries were horrific and it is no wonder that his companions gave him up for dead. But he did not die.
The film Glass has a backstory of an Indian wife (Grace Dove) and son (Forrest Goodluck), and the son is among the party and does all he can to save his father but is murdered by Fitzgerald for his pains. By now Fitzgerald is firmly in the villain camp, and probably has too few saving graces (none, actually) to make him credible. Tom Hardy is a Londoner but you wouldn’t know it. He featured in Inception, Band of Brothers and Black Hawk Down, among others, and he does a good job as Mr. Nasty here.
Of course a dead wife and son is a common Western trope. It allows the hero to be both tragic loner and loving family man at the same time.
Most of the movie is (justly) taken up with Glass’s survival and grueling journey to safety. He braves cold, Indians, hunger, rapids and of course his appalling injuries. To rub salt in the wound, Fitzgerald stole his rifle. He starts by crawling but gradually hobbles, then walks. Later on he athletically leaps aboard a horse to escape the Arikara posse. In reality the grizzly had broken his leg, which he set himself, so I don’t think he would really have been doing Tom Mix stunts to get mounted but never mind. Later he disembowels and crawls inside the corpse of this horse, which gives scope for plenty of steaming offal in the snow to wrinkle the noses of the viewers.
He does have help, from a nameless Pawnee (later murdered by French trappers, who are also baddies - On est tous des sauvages) and from a woman who (I think) is the daughter of the Arikara chief pursuing the white men. I say “I think” because it isn’t really made clear. But he finally makes it to Fort Kiowa and safety.
The last part of the picture concerns Glass’s revenge-pursuit of Fitzgerald. History tells us that Fitzgerald had left and joined the US Army and was unreachable by Glass, who did, however, retrieve his rifle from Bridger, but we don’t want mere historical truth to get in the way of a good story so we have a bloody dénouement in the snow.
Mr. DiCaprio, a versatile actor whom I admire, does an earnest job as Glass. For much of the movie he has no one to talk to/interact with and that must make it hard for an actor but he manages to transmit the toughness, grit and determination (fueled clearly by a lust for revenge) that drove him on against nigh-on impossible odds. DiCaprio started Westernism in the perfectly dreadful The Quick and the Dead in 1995 but made up for it with Django Unchained and this one.
The ending is left open, deliberately, I am sure. Does he survive the final revenge ordeal? I take comfort in history: Glass lived another ten years and died in 1833.
Visually the movie is superb, shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, much-nominated for Oscars (understandably so, judging by this picture) in Tierra del Fuego, Alberta and Arizona locations in a washed-out blue & white, like William A Wellman's Track of the Cat as close to monochrome as a color film can get. I also liked the somber and tragic music by Carsten Nicolai and Ryûichi Sakamoto.