Traditionally speaking, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences cannot resist a role based on a real person — especially an old-timey real person. For example, in this year's Best Actor Oscar category, four of the five roles nominated are at least partially based on a true-life individual, including Leonardo DiCaprio's The Revenant character, Hugh Glass.
Of course, as Oscar tradition dictates, DiCaprio has become the central figure in 2016's Best Actor race, as cinephiles clamor to know whether this year is the year Leo's mantlepiece is finally graced with a statue of a golden bald dude. For one thing, he is the only nominee (as far as I'm aware) to get their own retro video game based on his Oscar journey.
In Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant — which is itself nominated for Best Picture — DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a fur trader and frontiersman living and working in the 1820s. The Revenant's version of Glass is mostly derived from Michael Punke's book, The Revenant: A Novel Of Revenge, which adds many more fictional elements to Glass' story. For example, there is no suggestion the real Glass traveled with a half Native American son, or that he killed a former US Army captain. Furthermore, although Tom Hardy's character of John Fitzgerald did really exist, his role in the book and the film was changed to be a much more antagonistic, and although Glass really did embark on a journey of revenge against his former comrades, it ended very differently.
Despite this, are there kernels of truth within The Revenant, including the much talked about bear attack, many details of Glass's agonizing journey and the aid he received from friendly Native American tribes. In fact, the true story might be even more incredible than the film...
Hugh Are You?
Hugh Glass is now considered one of the most legendary frontiersman of the 19th century. However, unlike some of his ilk, he didn't discover some great new plateau or found a successful settlement in the harsh wilderness — he merely refused to die after being mauled by a bear and left for dead.
Glass was born in Pennsylvania to Irish parents in 1780. He worked as an explorer and fur trapper around the Upper Missouri River in and around present-day North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. His most famous feat involves an 1822 expedition to "ascend the river Missouri" and establish a fur trading venture under the control of General William Henry Ashley. The 100 man group subsequently became known as Ashley's Hundred and included several other famous figures from the American frontier, including James Beckwourth, Jedediah Smith, and Thomas Fitzpatrick.
Unfortunately, the expedition wasn't a leisurely stroll in the woods. The group had to pass through hostile Arikara territory and there were several clashes between the Native Americans and Ashley's Hundred. Glass was reportedly wounded during one skirmish, but was still able bodied enough to join a team of 13 men (led by Andrew Henry) who broke off from the group to relieve traders at Fort Henry. Meanwhile, the rest of the 100 men continued with the expedition.
While scouting ahead of his group for game, Glass surprised a grizzly bear and her two cubs. Before he even had a chance to fire his rifle, he was charged by the enraged bear, picked up, and then thrown to the ground. Stunned, the bear was able to rip off a piece of his flesh, which was then thrown to her waiting cubs.
While they were busy feeding, Glass was somehow able to get to his feet, pull out his hunting knife and attack the mother, stabbing it several times while also suffering massive wounds from the bear's claws. With both the bear and Glass near death, Glass was eventually able to finish off the mother with the help of his trapping partners, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger.
Now badly mauled and exhausted, the expedition leader, Henry, became convinced Glass could not survive his wounds and asked for volunteers to wait with Glass until he died. Bridger and Fitzgerald, who were only 19 and 23 respectively at the time, stepped forward, while the remaining 10 men continued their mission to Fort Henry. The two men dug Glass's grave, covered him with a bear hide as a shroud and waited for him to die.
However, they later claimed they were ambushed by Arikare and were forced to abandon Glass, taking all his equipment with them. This account is somewhat debated, with others suggesting Bridger and Fitzgerald merely got bored and headed off — believing Glass would die soon anyway. Upon meeting up with the rest of Henry's men, they incorrectly told them Glass had died.
A Grave Mistake
Sometime later, Glass regained consciousness to discover he had been dumped in an unfinished grave without weapons, provisions or equipment. Upon checking his injuries, he realized he had a broken leg, exposed ribs, and many festering wounds. As he laid alone and gravely wounded, he was 200 miles (320km) from the nearest friendly settlement at Fort Kiowa.
However, Glass wasn't one to wait around for death. As long as he was conscious, he was at least going to try and make it to safety. He set his own broken leg, wrapped himself in the bear hide and began crawling towards Fort Kiowa. Along the way, he lay his wounded back onto a rotting log, allowing the maggots to eat the dead flesh, therefore preventing gangrene.
Although the Grand River would have provided a much quicker way of reaching Fort Kiowa, Glass was concerned of hostile Native American attacks, and decided to take the longer, and much more arduous, overland route toward the Cheyenne River — all the the time using the prominent Thunder Butte landform to navigate.
This trek to the Cheyenne River, which was conducted mostly while crawling, took Glass six weeks to complete. Along the way, he sustained himself on berries and roots, although on one occasion he was able to drive two wolves away from a recently killed bison calf. However, Glass wasn't alone the entire time. He was also aided by friendly Native Americans who provided him with food and weapons. They also sewed the bear skin into his back, more effectively covering his wounds and making him look like some kind of badass man-bear.
Upon reaching the Cheyenne, Glass fashioned a makeshift raft and covered the remaining distance to Fort Kiowa on the river.
After a long recuperation, Glass then decided a mission of vengeance was the next order of the day. He decided to hunt down Bridger and Fitzgerald in order to gain revenge for being left for dead in the wilderness. He found Bridger near the mouth of the Bighorn River and intended to kill him, but after the young frontiersman begged for his life, Glass ultimately changed his mind. Fitzgerald was next on the list, but when Glass found him, he discovered Fitzgerald had joined the US Army. The penalty for killing a U.S. solider was death, so once again Glass decided to let his former comrade live. However, he did discover Fitzgerald still had his old rifle, which he took back.
Back Into The Fray
Now, fully recovered and satisfied with the amount of vengeance obtained, Glass went back into the frontiersman business. Next he worked on another expedition for Ashley to find a new trapping route. Glass, with four others, set off up the Powder River and soon discovered a camp of 38 native lodges with several natives standing on the shore.
At first glance, they appeared to be friendly Pawnee Indians, and Glass's group went ashore to eat with them. However, during their meeting, Glass actually discovered they were part of the dangerous Arikara nation, the same tribe who had fought several times with Glass in the past. Upon realizing this, the group attempted to quickly escape the camp on their boat, however the Arikara swam after them and both arrived on the opposite shore at around the same time. Two of the five, Marsh and Duton, managed to escape, although two others, More and Chapman, were killed. Glass himself managed to escape by hiding behind some rocks. Later he joined a group of Sioux Indians and once again made his way back to Fort Kiowa.
He continued to work as a fur trapper and trader, but unfortunately, his luck eventually ran out. The man who had survived several battles with natives, a bear, and the wilderness was eventually killed by the Arikara during a trapping expedition with two others on the Yellowstone River in 1833.
So, the story is certainly an epic one, and although the movie had a more climactic ending, the film remains essentially true to the original events. However, will this be enough to bag DiCaprio an Oscar this weekend? I guess you'll have to tune into the Academy Awards on Sunday to find out.