Wikipedia informs us that ‘The telephone game’ we played as kids “is a game played around the world, in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group.” Director and co-writer Alejandro G. Iñárritu decided to play this game when he made The Revenant. The original message was based on the story of one Hugh Glass, a fur trapper, who joined a trapping expedition searching for beaver pelts in what is now South Dakota in the early part of 1823.
According to historical accounts, Glass joined a party led by General William Ashley who met up with the Indian tribe Arikara (aka The Rees) and negotiated a trade of horses for gunpowder. After a trapper ended up having carnal relations with an Indian maiden (and got his throat slit), the Rees attacked the next day which is thrillingly depicted in Iñárritu’s opening scene (some have argued that the scene is too long, but hey isn’t this the movies?).
Iñárritu and co-writer Mark L. Smith now begin to tamper with the historical record by introducing the idea that Glass fathered a son, Hawk, with an Indian maiden, and she was killed during an early Indian massacre by U.S. troops. Hawk accompanies Glass on the expedition.
The break into second Act occurs when Glass is mauled by a bear. Whether the story is true or not, it was widely publicised throughout the United States, sealing Glass’s status as a legendary figure. The bear attack scene is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking; Iñárritu, using CGI effects, re-creates the attack on Glass, who despite shooting and stabbing the creature, still ends up an inch from death (the bear seems to forget that he’s attacked Glass, ending up pawing and sniffing him before it walks away!).
The next sequence appears to adhere to the basic facts of what happened. After attempting to lug the badly wounded Glass over hostile terrain in an improvised lean-to, the expedition’s leader, Henry, offered cash if two in the group would stay with Glass until he expired. There were two volunteers, John Fitzgerald and a teenager named Bridger.
After the rest of trappers left, Iñárritu then turns The Revenant into a tale of revenge. Fitzgerald murders Glass’s half-Pawnee son and takes off with his tools and weapons, with Bridger in tow. In the film, Glass eventually seeks to exact revenge for the murder of his son. In reality, Glass went after Fitzgerald merely for stealing his rifle!
Glass then attempts to survive in the wilderness and make his way to Fort Kiowa. Glass’s account has him crawling part of the way there, with a broken leg and unable to speak, due to wounds to his throat caused by the bear. He might have survived in part by eating a rattlesnake. Iñárritu has him initially finding a minimal amount of meat in the crevices of carcasses of dead animals.
Iñárritu embellishes the Glass legend by creating the character of a Pawnee refugee, Hikuc, whose family is murdered by the Sioux. Hikuc helps Glass by attending to his wounds, setting him up in a tepee where he’s able to sleep and recuperate. When Glass wakes up, he discovers Hikuc hanging from a tree, murdered by French traders (the French here are particularly noxious and evil, responsible for not only killing Glass’s friend Hikuc but also raping the Arikara chief’s daughter, Powaqa). Glass manages to free Powaqa and kill two of the French traders before escaping from them.
Before making it back to civilisation, Iñárritu has Glass endure one last great ordeal. Chased by Arikara, Glass is forced to jump off a cliff while on horseback. His fall is broken by a pine tree below but his horse isn’t so lucky. To endure the cold, Glass slits open the horse carcass and takes a pleasant nap inside its belly. It’s all very cinematic but of course it never happened.
As history has it, Fitzgerald joined the Army as a scout and this prevented Glass from exacting vigilante justice. Instead, after he got his rifle back, the story goes that Glass forgave Fitzgerald. So much for a fight to death on the freezing tundra!Leonardo DiCaprio deserves all the accolades for toughing it out in an environment which would make most actors quite squeamish. And Tom Hardy is a fine villain, going up against the noble Glass. Nonetheless, put on your English sub-titles, since it’s often difficult to understand the dialogue, which often sounds quite garbled.
According to Wikipedia, Iñárritu stated that “there can only be disappointment and lack of fulfillment for anyone who looks to revenge as providing a higher purpose for living or a life defining purpose.” It’s an odd statement since his protagonist Glass is bent on revenge throughout and the audience is asked to cheer him on. Just as he disparages revenge as a way to administer justice, Iñárritu revels in it to tell his story. And while Glass chooses not to issue the coup de grace at film’s end (and has the Arikara finish the evil Fitzgerald off), it’s not enough to suggest somehow Glass is absolved from his monomaniacal stand.
Iñárritu’s telephone game is complete when he has his protagonist go off on into the mountains, communing with his dead wife, incorporating all the wisdom she imparted while she was alive. Unfortunately, the real Glass was not such a recipient of kindly Native American wisdom, having ended up victim of an Arikara scalping party in the spring of 1833.