Alejandro González Iñárritu's epic new film, "The Revenant," currently in limited release and set for wide release Jan. 8, is inspired by the life of American frontiersman Hugh Glass. Its screenplay is based on Michael Punke's 2002 novel of the same name, which recounts Glass' early 19th-century adventures, misadventures, thirst for revenge and unlikely ability to forgive.
What moviegoers will find in "The Revenant" is the telling of a classic American tale and one that ought to inspire them even today, especially in light of the many trappings of our modern culture. In the film, a rugged, adventuresome survivalist with a will of steel, an extremely thick skin and a strong sense of pride perseveres against all odds.
States didn't start keeping vital records until the early 1840s, so little is known about Glass' early life. It is believed he was born in Pennsylvania in 1780 to parents of Scottish descent. Legend has it that off the coast of Texas, he escaped a ship on which he spent two years as a captive pirate by swimming ashore — only to be captured and almost killed by Pawnee Native Americans. He ended up living with them for several years. He even married one of them.
But Glass' enduring legend is built upon his better-documented middle-age escapades as a trapper in what is now South Dakota and Nebraska. In 1822, he joined a fur-trading expedition up the Missouri River organized by entrepreneur William Henry Ashley. Glass was 42 — old by the standards of his fellow mountain men, the 100-strong cohort that included James Beckwourth and Jedediah Smith and would later be dubbed Ashley's Hundred.
In May 1823, they tangled with warriors from the Arikara tribe, a group of Native Americans from the Dakotas. Seventeen of the Hundred were killed in the skirmish and Glass was reportedly shot in the thigh.
Then, in August of that year, Glass was mauled by a grizzly bear, triggering a series of events that form the basis of Iñárritu's gorgeously shot film.
Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) was left for dead in an open grave and robbed of his weapons by companions John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger before regaining consciousness and setting his own broken leg. Wrapped in the bear hide his erstwhile comrades had draped over him as a death shroud and driven by a thirst for revenge, he crawled toward Fort Kiowa, more than 200 miles away. With no interstate signs, no map and no GPS to guide him, he followed the towering landmark of Thunder Butte.
Food was scarce, too, and health care was, in those days, primitive — to put it mildly. Glass survived on roots, berries and even rattlesnake meat during his two-month trek. He reclined against a rotting log so its maggots would eat the dead flesh of his festering wounds. Sympathetic Sioux sewed his bear hide onto his back to cover bone-exposing wounds. After eating leftover entrails from a bison felled by wolves, Glass floated down the Missouri on an improvised raft. He was not traveling in style.
Risen from his perceived death ("The Revenant" means one who has returned from the dead) and after months of recuperation, Glass began his hunt for Fitzgerald and Bridger, apparently seeking both murderous retribution and his stolen gun. After a numbingly cold 250-mile trudge, he just missed Bridger at Fort Henry, near the middle of the modern-day Montana-North Dakota borderline.
Glass eventually caught up with the treacherous teenager at a new fort at the mouth of the Bighorn River. But in a surprising twist, he not only forgave Bridger, purportedly because of his youth and obvious shame, but also re-joined Ashley's company.
Undeterred by past horrors, Glass embarked on an Ashley expedition in 1824, this time up the Powder River in a primitive bullboat. After two of his companions were killed in another Arikara encounter, Glass was again reported dead but eventually made his way back to Fort Kiowa.
There he learned that the principal object of his vengeance, the older and therefore in his eyes more culpable Fitzgerald, had joined the army. Glass traveled to Fort Atkinson in what is now Nebraska to confront him. Fitzgerald returned Glass' "borrowed" rifle, and Glass spared the man's life, possibly because killing a serving U.S. soldier carried the death penalty.
Glass later worked as a hunter at the garrison at Fort Union on today's North Dakota/Montana border. In 1833, he was killed by members of the Arikara tribe on the banks of the Yellowstone River.
Glass' paranormal grit and guile spawned a significant cultural legacy. He inspired not only "The Revenant" book and film, but also the 1954 biographical novel "Lord Grizzly" and the 1971 Richard Harris film "Man in the Wilderness." The 2011 song "Six Weeks," by chart-topping Icelandic pop band Of Monsters and Men, is about Glass. A monument to him now stands near Lemmon, S.D.