There have been two
films based on the story of Hugh Glass, the mountain man who in 1823 was
attacked by a grizzly bear and left for dead in the territory now known as
South Dakota. “The Revenant” (2015), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is the more
recent and better known. It won three Oscars, including best actor, best
director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), and best cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki). It
was hailed as a cinematic tour de force because of its on-location photography
and Iñárritu’s innovative filmmaking techniques, not to mention DiCaprio’s endurance-test
of a performance. In some ways, however, the film is so over the top in style
and execution that the director’s techniques tend to overshadow the substance
of the story. It also fictionalizes the true events it is based on in a way
that makes it more melodramatic than it needed to be. Even the New York Times
noted its “Pearls of Pauline” approach to storytelling.
A more satisfying and
truthful telling of the Glass saga can be found in the first filmed version—the
sadly overlooked and highly underrated “Man in the Wilderness” (1971) starring
Richard Harris. Directed by Richard C. Sarafian and scripted by Jack DeWitt (who
also wrote the “Man Called Horse” movies), “Wilderness” tells its story simply,
directly, and far more powerfully. It’s now available from Warner Archive in
Blu-Ray, and it’s time this movie got a second look.
The basic idea in the
two films is the same. Glass, one of the trappers in the Captain Andrew Henry
expedition, is attacked by a grizzly and so badly injured that no one expects
him to live. Henry orders two men to stay with him until he expires. It is at
this early point in the plot that the two films diverge. Iñárritu’s film
depicts one of the men left behind, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) as a completely
despicable character—almost an Oil Can Harry villain. He hates Glass and Hawk, the
half-breed son he had by an Indian squaw, who serves as the hunting party’s
scout. He kills Hawk, who catches him trying to murder Glass and tells Bridger,
the other man left behind, that he saw some Arikara Indians coming and
frightens him into abandoning Glass. The bulk of the film follows Glass as he
overcomes his wounds and the elements, and faces a final showdown with his nemesis.
While this makes an exciting story, it’s not entirely in accordance with the
facts, and forces the film to have a somewhat clichéd ending.
Sarafian’s version of
the story takes a different, more realistic approach. Rather than to portray
the two men left behind to watch over Glass (renamed Zach Bass in this version)
as evil incarnate, he makes Captain Henry the villain-- although villain is too
melodramatic a word. Played by Hollywood legend John Huston as a cross between
Ahab and an Old Testament God-figure, Henry is a harsh authoritarian without an
ounce of compassion. When we first see him, in a scene that calls
“Fitzcarraldo” (1982) to mind, he is standing on the deck of a boat being
hauled by 22 mules overland to the Missouri River. The white-bearded captain
looks down at the men riding alongside on horseback as if he were the Almighty
Himself, and he runs the expedition as if he were. When he learns Bass is injured, he not only
orders the party to leave him behind, he tells Fogarty (Percy Herbert playing a
fictionalized version of Fitzgerald) and Lowrie (Dennis Waterman) to stay with
him until morning and kill him if he is still alive by then. He tells them to
say some words over him. “Say ‘he fought life all his life,’” he instructs them.
“`Now his fight is with you, God.’ I reckon that’s where he figured it always
The captain had good
reason to know of Bass’s defiant attitude toward religion. He raised Bass from
boyhood after finding him stowed away on his ship, which makes his decision to
leave him behind even more inhuman. In a
series of flashbacks that ripple through Bass’s mind as he recovers from his
wounds and regains his strength, we learn what turned young Zack Bass against God
and religion. When his mother died of cholera on board a ship and is about to
be buried at sea, he’s told by a priest that cholera is God’s punishment for
sin and that her death “was God’s will.” When he’s told he must attend the
funeral, young Zachary locks the door to his cabin and refuses to go on deck. Later
in a classroom a stern, bearded minister grills the class on the question of
who made man and why. When Bass refuses to answer the question, the minister
smacks his hands with a wooden pointer over and over, shouting, “God made man,
Bass. God made man.” But the boy remains stubbornly silent.
In another flashback,
Bass’s young pregnant wife, tells him, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.
And in the earth, and the sea. Have you never seen it? Never felt it?” He says,
“No.” He says he doesn’t have much in common with God. He speaks to the unborn
child in his wife’s womb, apologizing that he won’t be there when he’s born and
for bringing him into a world that is “hell on earth.” The wilderness he
struggles to survive in is as much spiritual as it is material.
The theme of spiritual
revitalization was a subject that screenwriter Jack De Witt focused on more
than once in his writing. His scripts for the “A Man Called Horse,” films,
which also starred Richard Harris, and especially “The Return of a Man Called
Horse,” were about a man, and a people, who had lost their spiritual identity.
In “Return” Captain John Morgan finds life in England stultifying after having
lived in America with the Yellow Hand Sioux. He returns and finds the tribe
decimated and demoralized after white trappers took their land and killed many
of their people. It is only when Morgan and the tribe’s survivors participate
in the grueling Sun Dance Ceremony, that they regain their identity and the
spirit to fight again.
In “Wilderness” a subtler
transformation occurs, when Bass, alone and on the trail of the expedition that
left him behind, encounters a small group of “Rickaree’s” (the name the
trappers called the Arikara) in a forest. He hides behind a tree as a squaw
dismounts near him and squats in childbirth. Seeing the mother and the newborn infant,
he cannot help but think of the son he never met, and it’s as though for a
moment he gets a glimpse of the “heaven within” that his wife spoke of. It’s
the story’s turning point.
“Man in the
Wilderness” is an uncompromising film. Just as it refuses to paint its
characters as black and white stereotypes, it also provides no easy answers to
the questions it poses. Sarafian and DeWitt don’t sugar coat anything. Life in
the wild is presented as a constant battle for survival. Starving, Bass finds a
bison being devoured by wolves. Unable to walk, he crawls on hands and knees,
beats the wolves off with a stick, and takes a chunk of bloody raw meat and
eats it. There’s’ no respite from the
harshness of frontier life. Even when a bird flies overhead, Bass looks up at
the blue sky only to see a hawk pouncing down on it. The Arikaras are depicted
as killers, and any encounter with them will cost a white man his life. And yet
when they find Bass unconscious and near death, they leave him alone, because
of an amulet left on his body by the expedition’s Indian guide. And later when
Bass is well and they meet again, the Arikara chief (Henry Wilcoxon) evinces
admiration and a liking of the fur trapper’s courage and ability to survive.
Warner Archive has
done a good job transferring “Man in the Wilderness to a 1080 p Blu-Ray. It was
filmed in the mountains of Spain and Arizona by Gerry Fisher, and his cinematography
is shown on the disc to full advantage. The film in presented in wide screen
2.41:1 aspect ratio with DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. The picture quality is
very good, but it’s too bad there wasn’t a stereo soundtrack available.
Presumably. like a lot of films in the 70s, it was shot in mono. The sound is
definitely lacking in bass and the high frequencies are a bit shrill—the only drawback
to an otherwise very good Blu-Ray. A theatrical trailer is the only extra.
Bottom line: “Man in
the Wilderness” is a definite must-have. One of the rare things that come out
of Hollywood only occasionally—a film that tries to tell it like it is.