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Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Why The Martian is a better survival movie than The Revenant

The story of Hugh Glass is a true adventure story (PROBABLY, although it was widely reported the details of his survival have been embellished over time and were never corroborated by Glass himself). It is full of great feats of endurance and real survival and a retelling of it could have been a fantastic opportunity to look at the hardship of survival and the realities of how difficult it would have been to survive, horrifically wounded and without equipment, the harsh American frontier. 

In late August or early September 1823 Glass was in the employ of General William Ashley as a hired hunter accompanying a fur trapping expedition led by Ashley's business partner Andrew Henry up the Missouri River.  Scouting ahead of the main body of men Glass encountered a female grizzly bear with two cubs, bears are fierce in defence of their cubs and it charged him and mauled him severely. Hearing his cries the rest of the party killed the bear but thought that Glass was certainly going to die due to his horrific wounds including severe lacerations and a broken leg. Determined not to abandon him Henry ordered a litter built and the party carried Glass with them for several days but with their added burden they could not travel quickly enough and desperately needed to link up with another party to provide security against expected Indian attacks. Eventually a bonus of $80 was offered for two men to stay behind with Glass until he died and to bury him. Two men stayed, reportedly an experienced mountain man John Fitzgerald and a young Jim Bridger, later to become one of the most famous mountain men of all time, on his first expedition on the frontier. Rather than staying the two abandoned Glass when he was still alive five days after the main party left taking with them his rifle and equipment and reporting that he had died. 

When he realised what had happened Glass set out on his monumental journey to fort Kiowa, little more than a trading post on the Missouri, he could do no more than crawl to begin with and had nothing to eat but insects, a few plant roots and the occasional snake until he was able to steal part of a buffalo carcass from some wolves. Remaining camped for a time while he ate the buffalo meat and treated some of his festering wounds with maggots he recuperated a little and was able to continue his journey. He later was given a hide boat by some friendly Lakota Indians and was able to complete his journey to for Kiowa where he re-provisioned and began his search for those who abandoned him. 

When he eventually caught up with Bridger he forgave him for abandoning him, perhaps because of his youth, and then re-enlisted with General Ashley. On hearing that Fitzgerald was at Fort Atkinson he headed there. More adventures followed and for a time he was without his equipment again when he had to flee from some Rees Indians. Eventually arriving at Fort Atkinson he found Fitzgerald had joined the United States Army and as such the killing him would have meant the death penalty. The Captain in charge of the fort reunited Glass with his rifle which Fitzgerald still had but Glass wisely did not pursue revenge and left. In fact there is no evidence that Glass even had revenge in mind at all, although he did travel to Fort Atkinson that may have been purely to retrieve his rifle and as was demonstrated by his forgiveness towards Bridger he probably completely understood their decision to leave him given his condition.

The key aspects of this story to me are Glass's determination and will to survive coupled with his obvious skill as an outdoorsman, being able to navigate without map or compass the 250 mile journey to Fort Kiowa and eek out a living from foraged food on his six week journey is nothing short of superhuman, a quote by Glass when he again later lost his rifle and equipment on his way to Fort Atkinson sums this up for me;

"Although I had lost my rifle and all my plunder, I felt quite rich when I found my knife, flint and steel in my shot pouch. These little fixens make a man feel right peart when he is three or four hundred miles from anybody or any place."

For a man to be so happy and confident with so few supplies is a sign of a true outdoorsman. Being familiar with this story I was very excited for the release of The Revenant in 2015 and looked forward to the story of Glass, which I was already familiar with, being on the big scree. However I was sorely disappointed as all the film seemed to be was an opportunity for Leonardo Dicaprio to drool and groan his way to an Oscar. The overriding message of the film was not one of survival against the odds or of the hardships of the American frontier but one of revenge. It seems that there can be no other motivation in film nowadays. The remake of the magnificent seven (the original is one of my favourite films of all time) did it too inventing a backstory for Chris (I don't know or care what  Denzel Washington's character is called, in the original it was Chris), which led to him accepting to job of defending the village so he could have revenge on the badguy who had wronged him in the past. The Revenant did this too, but while I can forgive the director of the new Magnificent Seven film, it's fiction after all, I can't forgive the writers and director of The Revenant for tampering with historical fact. They invented a wife and son Glass never had and implicating Bridger and Fitzgerald in the murder of that son who never existed just to add to the revenge theme. Invented an encounter with Arikara Indians in which Glass killed several French trappers and rescued a chiefs daughter and inventing the murder of Andrew Henry (who in actual fact lived to retire from fur trading and take up lead mining dying at the age of 56 in 1832) at the hands of Fitzgerald and ultimately the death of Fitzgerald at the hands of Glass and the Arikaras.

Hugh Glass Monument.jpg
Monument to Glass Grand River Museum, Lemmon, South Dakota. By John Lee Lopez - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
A film which could have been a truly inspiring account of survival and mind over matter turned instead into a story of revenge and violence unworthy of Glass and the other mountain men of the era. Instead a science fiction film, the last genre you would expect, embodies the hardy spirit of Glass and the mountain men much better than The Revenant does.

In the Martian Mark Watney, a NASA botanist and astronaut is stranded on Mars during a planned month long expedition when the team have to evacuate due to a massive sand storm which threatens to damage the rocket which should return them to their space craft. Missing and presumed dead after he is struck by debris he is left on Mars.

So in much the same condition as glass he is left in an alien landscape wounded and abandoned. Perhaps if the directors of The Revenant were in charge we'd have seen Watney undertake a mammoth effort to reap revenge against the crew who left him behind, or later against NASA who didn't reveal his survival to the rest of his crew for several months. But no we see in him the qualities that the real Hugh Glass must have had, of tenacity and of an application of knowledge which would ultimately lead to survival. This is why we will always need bushcraft skills, even when or if people do travel to Mars and beyond. The key skills of survival, being able to adapt, improvise and overcome, is fantastically demonstrated here as Watney makes water with the hydrogen from rocket engines, fertilises martian soil with human waste and grows potatoes inside his artificial habitat. He undertakes a massive journey in a rover vehicle heated to protect him from the freezing martian nights by a 'big box of plutonium' a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. He doesn't have to crawl, treat himself with maggots or fight wolves for discarded buffalo meat  but he does complete a journey against the odds, with incredible determination and perseverance. In fact all the qualities that Glass demonstrated in real life.

Yes I know that The Martian isn't a true story, but after all the changes neither is The Revenant, and I also accept that the true story of Glass is probably not fully known due to poor records and the Mountain Man penchant for telling 'tall tales' but the fact remains that he survived a horrific ordeal through determination and skill, something not depicted in The Revenant, instead it seems that Mark Watney was channelling Hugh Glass while I half expected Decaprio to come out with "I am Hugh Glass, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife and I will have my vengence" a'la General Maximus in Gladiator.

That's why The Martian is  better survival movie than The Revenant. 

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