The Revenant is an achievement, to say the least, thanks in part to the gritty realism employed by director Alejandro Inarritu and the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and a strong supporting cast.
After several Golden Globe wins, 12 Academy Award nominations, and being a rare non-blockbuster-type film to achieve that financial status anyway — it has grossed $151.8 million worldwide on a budget of $135 million in just its second weekend of wide release — it is unquestionably a success.
That said, there is a sense that The Revenant true story — what actually inspired the Michael Punke novel on which this is based — would have made for a better film.
It is worth mentioning that spoilers for The Revenant film lie ahead, so if you have yet to watch it and don’t want the experience taken from you, turn back now.
If you’re still here, here’s what the movie got right and the missed opportunity that occurred from following the book events instead of what happened in reality.
Hugh Glass (played by DiCaprio in the film) was a rugged mountain man, and an expert guide on the 19th Century fur-trading expedition of General William Henry Ashley.
He is known primarily as the victim of a brutal bear mauling. He miraculously survived the attack and then set out on a journey of revenge to kill the men, who left him for dead.
In the film, those men are portrayed by Hardy (the character John Fitzgerald) and Will Poulter (the character Bridger).
Fitzgerald and Bridger were the real names of the men who left Glass for dead, but the circumstances in the film are considerably different from the oft-told true story.
In the film, Inarritu gives Glass an as-far-as-you-know fictitious Pawnee son — after all, this was in 1822, and if Glass had a Native American child, there would likely have been no record — and then he has Fitzgerald kill the boy.
This sets the stage for a high stakes revenge drama in which Glass will stop at nothing — even crawling much of the 200 miles to Camp Kiowa — for a chance at revenge.
In reality, there is no evidence of the son and no evidence that Fitzgerald was the loathsome coward he is portrayed as here.
By most accounts, Bridger and Fitzgerald were just young men, who didn’t see how Glass could possibly survive an attack where his ribs were left hanging out and the man himself was essentially in a coma in the middle of harsh terrain.
That led them to make the mistake of taking his knife, rifle, and boots as “proof” he was dead and abandoning their mission to stay behind and give him a proper burial after he’d passed naturally.
Understandably, when Glass came to and found everyone had left him for dead and taken everything he had, he was angry.
That anger fueled his 200-mile journey, which in the film, along with the brutality of the bear attack and his desire to kill Bridger and Fitzgerald, aligns with The Revenant true story.
The brutal hand-to-hand fight at the film’s climax, however, is completely fabricated, and by that point, unnecessary.
The Revenant is a great film, but it also goes needlessly overboard on the man-versus-man brutality. A straight retelling of this tale would have carried the same dramatic weight, if not more, when you learn how Glass ultimately handled his thirst for revenge.
He tracked both men down separately — first Bridger, then Fitzgerald — and forgave them.
In The Revenant, he does end up forgiving Bridger, but he eventually tracks Fitzgerald down for a one-on-one showdown, Hollywood-style, and while he ultimately decides not to take his retribution, he might as well with how he ends up leaving Fitzgerald.
In the end, the missed opportunity in an otherwise tremendous achievement is not having enough faith in audiences to accept the genuine article.
It would have required characterizing Fitzgerald in a more sympathetic light and getting rid of Hugh Glass’ probably-fictitious son, but it could also have made the movie more about the power of forgiveness instead of appeasing bloodlust, and that would have been a story worth telling.
But what do you think, readers?
Is The Revenant a missed opportunity or perfect as-is? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
[Image via The Revenant screen grab]