Webster’s Dictionary defines the word ‘revenant’ as “one that returns after death or a long absence.” This word summarizes accurately the adversity that Oscar-nominated actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass confronts in “Birdman” director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” (**** OUT OF ****), an unforgettable frontier yarn set in early 1820’s America. Struggling against virtually insuperable odds to stay alive after a mama bear mauls him, Hugh Glass watches in horror when his own comrades abandon him for dead. Glass’ mind-boggling battle for survival occurred during an ill-fated trapping expedition in what is now South Dakota. Grizzly not only describes the formidable female bear that attacks Glass, but also the obstacles that Glass must conquer during his desperate fight to get back to civilization and wreak vengeance. Although this beautifully-lensed movie is based in part on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, the real Hugh Glass was a celebrated contemporary of fellow mountain men Jedediah Smith and Grizzly Adams. Glass led an adventurous life as a smuggler, ship’s captain, pirate, frontiersman, trapper, fur trader, hunter, and explorer. Oscar-nominated Mexican director Iñárritu dwells on this chapter of Glass’ extraordinary life, and he surrounds DiCaprio with a brawny supporting cast. You’ve never seen “The Wolf of Wall Street” like you see him in “The Revenant,” and the closest DiCaprio movie to feature such a dreadful predicament is the historical French costume drama “The Man in the Iron Mask.” Tom Hardy, who played both Max in “Mad Max Fury Road” and Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” makes a despicable villain that you will abhor with a passion. The majestic scenery that serves as a backdrop for this epic journey makes the hero and the villain seem larger-than-life as they negotiate a landscape rife with peril. Iñárritu spent nine months shooting “The Revenant” in chronological order at a variety of scenic locations in British Columbia, Montana, San Francisco, and finally Argentina. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and he shot this masterpiece using only natural light to heighten the authenticity.
As “The Revenant” unfolds, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson of “Ex Machina”) of the Rocky Mountain Trading Company has hired Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio of “Inception”) to serve as a scout for a fur trapping expedition. Things take a turn for the worse early on as savage Arikara Indians attack their camp. Many of the trappers die in the fracas, and Glass suggests that they return to their Fort Kiowa headquarters by an overland route. John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy of “Lawless”), a thoroughly obnoxious trapper from Texas, hates the idea, but he goes along reluctantly with it. Meantime, while he is out foraging for food, Glass spots two bawling bear cubs and then sees their aggressive mother. This pugnacious bear launches herself at Glass and turns him every which way but loose. Mind you, Glass manages to squeeze off one shot from his single-shot rifle before the bear tears into him and devastates our hero with her six-inch razor-sharp claws. Eventually, the wounded bear succumbs to Glass’ bullet, and our hero finishes the beast off with a huge knife. Captain Henry orders his men build a stretcher for Glass, but the expedition halts when the terrain prevents them from carrying Glass any farther. Moreover, the woebegone Glass appears in such ghastly condition that Henry feels certain he will die. He promises extra pay to anybody who will stick around until Glass dies and give him a Christian burial. Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter of “The Maze Runner”) both volunteer to stay with Glass until the inevitable. Naturally, Glass’ Pawnee Indian son Hawk (newcomer Forrest Goodluck) refuses to desert his dad. Eventually, Fitzgerald grows impatient with Glass when he doesn’t die. Not only does he kill Hawk, but also he tries to bury Glass alive. Fearing for his own life, Bridger accommodates Fitzgerald’s disloyalty. Miraculously, Glass survives and embarks upon an incredible journey to reach civilization and pay back Fitzgerald for his treachery.
For the record, “The Revenant” is the third movie about Glass’s astonishing exploits. The first movie was “Vanishing Point” director Richard C. Sarafian’s “Man in the Wilderness” (1971) with Irish actor Richard Harris as the resilient hunter who lived through a bear attack, but his fellow trappers left him behind to die in isolation. While the character that Harris portrayed in “Man in the Wilderness” was called Zachary Bass, the Bass character was based largely on Hugh Glass and his legendary exploits. “Man in the Wilderness” ranks as an above-average adventure narrative, but it isn’t half as good as Iñárritu’s “The Revenant.” Far more abysmal is the hopelessly inferior “Apache Blood” (1975), the second cinematic account of Glass’s grizzly encounter. Vern Piehl spread himself too thin as producer, director, and cinematographer on this mediocre reenactment. In Piehl’s saddle-sore cavalry versus the Indians saga, a veteran army scout named Sam Glass tangles with a bear and emerges the worse for wear. “Man in the Wilderness” simulated the bear attack with an actual bear wrestling with its trainer. In the amateurish “Apache Blood,” the bear attacks the scout as he is refilling his canteen. The actor gropes somebody in a bear costume. The mauling in “The Revenant” looks far more realistic despite the conspicuous CGI work involved behind the scenes to replicate the savage event. Primarily, “Man in the Wilderness,” “Apache Blood,” and “The Revenant” follow the same plotline. Our indestructible protagonist suffers at the claws of a furious mama bear, and everybody deems him dead for the long haul. Punke’s novel as well as all three films follow the plot up to that point. In all four adaptations, Glass’s companions betray him. Villainous Percy Herbert betrayed Richard Harris in “Man in the Wilderness.” Cowardly cavalry troopers left Glass to fend for himself in “Apache Blood.” Tom Hardy displays no loyalty to DiCaprio in “The Revenant.” Occasionally, the action slows down because our protagonist wanders alone in desolation. Nevertheless, “The Revenant” qualifies as a stunning film that deserves all twelve of its Oscar nominations.
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts