Hollywood and history are old acquaintances, if not exactly good friends. The movie business needs stories and the good thing about history is its stories are free, so events and figures from the past have been a regular focus for filmmakers and studios. But while the facts of history seldom change, the interpretation of those facts is constantly up for grabs. Just in my lifetime, Christopher Columbus has gone from a universally recognized hero to a villain despised by all properly “woke” individuals.
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown examines how 44 years changed the way an epic tale of frontier survival was presented to the general public. It’s “Man in the Wilderness” (1971) vs. “The Revenant” (2015) as we look at a world where everything has gotten better except hope.
Both films are based, rather loosely, on the life of Hugh Glass. A scout and mountain man, Glass was part of a fur-trapping expedition into the wilds of 1823 South Dakota. For reference, South Dakota didn’t become a state until 1889. Glass was attacked and mauled by a bear, with two other members of the expedition being left behind to stay with Glass until he died and they buried him. Those two men eventually left Glass still alive and rejoined the expedition, telling them Glass had died. He survived his wounds, however, and spent six weeks crawling and floating downstream to a fort two hundred miles away. Glass then sought out the two men who abandoned him but eventually spared their lives.
The 1971 version, “Man in the Wilderness,” is a pretty minimalist rendition of the tale held together by Richard Harris’ inexplicable charisma as a frontier badass and the awesome voice of John Huston as the leader of the fur-trapping expedition. Seriously, filmmakers today spend tens of millions on CGI effects to try and grab the audience’s attention as much as Huston clearing his throat. His voice is so powerful and distinct that it’s almost impossible to tell how good an actor he genuinely is and it remains a stark reminder of the generic nature of modern performers.
The 2015 version, “The Revenant,” is a gorgeously filmed and somewhat laughably brutal movie where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass seems to be the second cousin of Wolverine. The physical punishment his character endures comes damn close to self-parody when compared to the much more realistic 1971 film. Harris’ Zachary Bass, whose name was likely changed on a studio whim, is severely injured, then recovers and slowly makes his way across the wilderness. DeCaprio’s character actually seems less badly hurt because he’s up and moving around almost immediately after the attack, but then endures one additional hardship after another while constantly exposed to the elements. It’s kind of a demonstration of the old “less is more” principle because while DeCaprio suffers far greater torment, you feel more for Harris because he feels more like a human being than an unstoppable mutant super-hero.
Both films also employ flashbacks of their main character’s life to fill out the plot, with the 1971 film focusing on Bass’ alienation from religion because of the harsh and unfeeling way he was educated in it as a child and Bass’ abandonment of his own child because he felt unfit as a parent in the wake of his wife’s death. The 2015 film gives Glass an Indian wife, slain in an attack by white men, and a son he raises on his own, with the flashbacks functioning less on the level of plot or character development and more as pretty visual digressions. “The Revenant” also fills out some time with a running subplot of an Indian band searching for the kidnapped daughter of its leader while “Man in the Wilderness” spends its non-Richard Harris time with the expedition dragging a freakin’ sailing ship through the forest and mountains while John Huston’s character worries about Zachary Bass catching up to them.
“Man in the Wilderness” has the problem common to a lot of 1970s cinema in that while the bear attack is pulled off surprisingly well, the whole thing has fairly low production standards to modern eyes. It looks like a TV movie, not something you’d pay money to see in a theater. I’m not sure why this is such an issue with movies from the 70s and not from either before or after the decade but I’ve seen enough 70s flicks to know it is an issue.
“The Revenant” has the problem common to a lot of 21st century cinema in that it is kind of an unpleasant experience. The film is essentially a non-stop parade of horrible things happening to people that the movie goes out of its way to portray as not all that innocent. Even Hugh Glass’ status as a hero is undermined somewhat by his being placed on the side of what the film clearly defines as white interlopers on native lands. And while the 1971 motion picture gave you some reasons to understand the decision to leave Zachary Bass behind, “The Revenant” wraps its whole plot around one of the most evil men you’ll ever meet. Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald is racist, greedy, selfish, deceitful, murderous, thieving, and arrogant. He kills Bass’ son and then arranges to leave the badly wounded man behind to serve Fitzgerald’s own interests, but then the movie gives him his own tragic backstory so you can’t even hate and despise him with a clear conscience.
“The Revenant” made a nice chunk of change at the box office based on DiCaprio being one of the last true movie stars in our popular culture and the truly awesome beauty of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s vision, though that vision does get a little too obsessed with tracking shots. “Man in the Wilderness” was more of a garden variety diversion that did okay in an era when people had far fewer entertainment options.
What may be most interesting about these films, however, is their subtly different presentations of the American Indian. In both movies, the Indians serve as a serious threat to the main white characters. “Man in the Wilderness” avoids the offensive cliché of Indian as savage by treating them mostly as a plot device. It’s not terribly enlightened but it’s not morally repugnant. “The Revenant” gives much more of its story over to the Indians and explicitly tries to position them as victims alongside Hugh Glass. However, the film’s relentless focus on the vicious and unsparing nature of the frontier acts to contradict that moral posturing. Conditions for the white explorers are so tough that it’s hard to view them as oppressors or intruders. The paradigm of “everything was fine until the white man ruined it all” doesn’t really work when…
A. You have the reality of frontier life shoved in your face. Things were awful and day-to-day existence was full of suffering and misery for everyone.
B. You realize that white men entered the frontier not as all-powerful invaders but on the same footing as the Indian, and maybe a bit worse. White men have no overwhelming advantages in “The Revenant” and that makes it hard to pretend the eventual triumph of white civilization was based on something other than offering a superior lifestyle, though with an unfortunate sharp edge.
This Throwdown goes to “The Revenant,” though it’s probably not quite as good as you may have heard. It is an amazing visual treat and its explosive moments of violence are impossible to ignore. “Man in the Wilderness” may be more emotionally satisfying but lacks much thematic relevance today.
Man in the Wilderness (1971)
Written by Jack DeWitt.
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian.
Starring Richard Harris, John Huston, Prunella Ransome, Percy Herbert, Henry Wilcoxon, Norman Rossington, Dennis Waterman, James Doohan, Bryan Marshall, and Ben Carruthers.
The Revenant (2015)
Written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Inarritu.
Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Duane Howard, Melaw Nakehk’o, Fabrice Adde, and Grace Dove.
A reminder...this movie takes place in South Dakota.
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