As the end of this rampantly fucked-up 2016 approaches, critics will most likely bombard the media with lists of the best film releases of the year. One of those releases that is bound to feature regularly is The Revenant, released back in January to thunderous acclaim. Remember that one that had the bear in it?…and there were reports of oxygen tanks being passed around in theatres to help people get through to the end?!
It is set in frontier America in the 1820s and recounts a harrowing and exasperating tale about a man called Hugh Glass (played here by Leonardo DiCapri Sun) who attempts to guide a group of trappers through treacherous lands and onto a defended US encampment. Unbeknownst to many viewers who went along to watch Alejandro González Iñárritu’s mega-spectacular experience, the story of Hugh Glass has actually been written and rewritten several times in the last two centuries. So much so that I am compelled to plea with the production companies to change that overused, albeit accurate, preface claim of ‘based on a true story’ and ask them to elaborate further on how much actual truth is about to be offered to us, perhaps by indicating a percentage estimate. Do you think that would ever happen? Does anybody really care?…well, I do. And here I want to explore the aspect of adaptation in film, whether accurate or inaccurate, by focusing on two such retellings of the Hugh Glass story: The Revenant, as I have mentioned, and Richard C. Sarafian’s Man in the Wilderness from 1971.
Two films, produced in two very different chronological contexts, but essentially crafted from the same source material i.e. historical evidence of Hugh Glass. The Revenant was adapted from a 2002 novel of the same name by Michael Punke, who spent several years researching the legend of Glass, subsequently novelising the story with a revenge–plot focus. The novel was ear-marked for a film adaptation almost immediately and after Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) abandoned his plan to direct it, Iñárritu picked up the baton in 2011 and, well, if you’ve seen the film this year, The Revenant was his end-product – a CGI-heavy, dialogue-thin, torture-porn survivalist epic that ran a close race for the Best Film Oscar and finally won a Best Actor Oscar for the definitive lead man of the 21st Century, DiCaprio. Iñárritu too picked up his second Oscar in a row for Best Director, gleefully hopscotching back across the border to Mexico before the Americans put up the wall and put an end to any more foreigners coming into Hollywood and taking their prizes!
Man in the Wilderness, on the other hand was produced from the script of Jack DeWitt, which in turn was heavily influenced by the Frederick Manfred biographical novel on Glass called Lord Grizzly from 1954. Witt was a Hollywood writer who had skilfully adapted many historical narratives for westerns since the 1940s – A Man Called Horse being his most famous. Horse was a fresh hit in 1970 and its star was none other than the Hellraising Limerick Larrikin himself, Richard Harris. Picking up on Horse’s success a year later, I imagine Man in the Wilderness was partially a vehicle for a number of studio executives to cash in on the stardom of Harris – a man whose notoriety off-screen had by that stage catapulted him into the A-List (what a guy though, here he is calling out Brando for his phoniness- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EOVtsNWWkI). The result was however, something more than just that. By some godsend for the execs, they also managed to get the legendary director John Huston (who was to also appear in the classic Chinatown a few years later) on board as Captain Henry (played by Domhnall Glesson in The Revenant – the Irish connections come thick and fast in this!) and what you get is a really decent, well-acted but slightly odd semi-fictional western.
Now I am not going to get down to which is better than the other – they are both quite impressive in their own right and I would enthuse you all to check out Man in the Wilderness if you have just seen The Revenant – but it is worth exploring similar aspects of their productions. Please note, there may be some spoilers from this point on…
The role of Glass, for example, was one that doubtlessly required a physical endurance in the lead actor (both DiCaprio and Harris). Basically, after been mauled half to death by a grizzly bear, he is left behind by the same men who he had been guiding through the outland and so embarks upon an arduous crawl back to civilisation. Harris mindfully captures the tortured soul of the character in a very spiritual and stoic way. Although there are elements of vengeance in his journey, his reminisces about his child and wife as well as his relationship with divinity are equally evident, giving a more rounded life-story to the man. In The Revenant, DiCaprio possesses a times-ten tortured soul – he witnesses one of the men killing his half-Pawnee son while he is incapacitated, which provides the catalyst for the title (this part of the story was completely fictionalised by both Punke and Iñárritu) – and it doesn’t get much better as he goes on. The scenes in which Harris and DiCaprio act out the more physically demanding parts of the story are what I believe to be a product of the times. In Man in the Wilderness, Harris has to wrestle around in the sand with a man in a bear suit – the setting is fairly undramatic and the injuries sustained by Glass actually look like they could be easily fixed up with a Band-Aid or two. Contrast this to the pulsating and graphic attack by a very convincing CGI bear in The Revenant – Iñárritu utilises his trademark camera-trickery in order to maximise the shock of a violent, onrushing mother bear, moving from the edge of the screen to full on jumping out at you. The backdrop setting of the cold, deep-green forest are hugely impressive here too and add to the visual assault that is initiated.
There is a weird, unprecedented scene in each of the films that I must comment on too. In Man in the Wilderness, the character of Bass develops his survivalist instincts pretty quickly. You’re not so sure of his chances at the beginning but he starts to trap animals for food and things start to look good for him. Then out of nowhere, this tame white rabbit is hopping around (I assume it was a pet from someone working on the set) and instead of eating it, he befriends it. Cue cuddly nice but uncomfortably awkward moment between the Hellraiser Harris and a bunny rabbit! Then in The Revenant, you have the disembowelling of a horse – not for food or for any such cruelty measures but for a nice, warm kip in the adequately-sized insides of an animal carcass while stuck in the freezing cold surrounds of the Missouri hills after having fallen from a great height whilst riding said horse. Did anyone call Iñárritu up for plagiarising the Tauntaun disembowelling scene in The Empire Strikes Back? I guess both scenes provide contrasting talking points concerning the relationship between man and animal – Harris has made it to a point where he is more comfortable about survival and can now tame an animal for companionship in the lonely wilderness, while DiCaprio is still in the instinctive phase of his journey and he willingly innovates in utilising the dead animal for the benefit of his survival.
There is no doubt that with all the bells and whistles available to directors nowadays, they are essentially in a very commanding position to upgrade an old story into a visually impressive and more expansive feature. The Revenant does a better job than many at this I think and this is mainly due to DiCaprio’s dedication to the art of physical acting (there appears to be a steady movement that way ever since Day Lewis blew our minds in There Will Be Blood) as well as the brilliant support by Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson. But it is also not least a mark of the director’s supremely talented hand. Along with the bombastic effects, Iñárritu significantly adds to this a profound sub-text of the brutally destructive impact white settlers directly had on the Indigenous population of America and their livelihoods. It may make it even more difficult to watch but this I believe is the true strength of the film and allows it to stand out.
In fairness to Man in the Wilderness, it too had an occasional nod to the negative effect that colonialism has had on the American continent – the world presented here, albeit from the white men’s point of view, is brutal, unkind and untrustworthy. Harris personifies a character who possesses a conflicted empathy toward the land he finds himself in. To him the ‘Indian’ way of life is mysterious and an unknown quantity. Unfortunately, this allows the film to form the typical white-washing agenda that proliferated the western genre in Hollywood from its very beginnings. There is no plausible establishment of ‘the other side of the story’, only a token indication of how they may have felt about it all. I am also pretty sure that the ‘Indian’ extras were mostly non-Indigenous white blokes.
Of course, The Revenant has 45 years on Man in the Wilderness and it would be a shame to have seen the story thrown down the same clichéd holes and not improved upon. It is plain for me to see that both Iñárritu and DiCaprio were very familiar with the earlier film and paid homage to much of its elements (Harris’s performance, flashback sequences, ambush scenes etc.). In this regard, the story of Glass has seen a development over the years from one man’s heroic tale, a tale of national pride, into something that is more contextualised and reflective of the past as a whole. It also becomes more sympathetic to the people affected by the events of the time, not just Glass. Even though the idea of full truth has been sidelined, we can accept that Glass’s story was inaccurate to begin with and there is an attempt to amend that with selections of associated historical evidence. Whether this is correct or not, I don’t really know.
What I do know is that these two films are very similar in matters of endurance. They are brutal and they are not easy to watch. Indeed, there are better things to do than spending ones time requiring oxygen to get through a movie. But I will vouch for their credibility more so than say, a sensationalist Gaspar Noe film. You can at least take the poignancy away and utilise it for betterment in your thinking about the world. Well, I would anyway.
At the end of Man in the Wilderness, Richard Harris walks towards the shitting-in-his-pants John Huston and asks for his gun, saying ‘I’m going home’. As he walks off, I can’t help but think he’s actually making a beeline for the pub and thinking ‘I’m done, get me a pint of Guinness?!’ I say this because I had the same sentiment after watching The Revenant.