John G. Neihardt’s ‘The Song of Hugh Glass’ and ‘The Revenant’
In 1915, John G. Neihardt – author of many volumes of poetry but also of fiction and philosophy, and soon to be Nebraska’s poet laureate – wrote an epic narrative poem titled ‘The Song of Hugh Glass’. It told the story of Hugh Glass, an American frontiersman and fur trapper who lived in South Dakota at the end of the eighteenth century.
Neihardt, in the introductory note to his poem writes that ‘The following narrative is based upon an episode taken from that much neglected portion of our history, the era of the American Fur Trade. My interest in that period may be said to have begun at the age of six when, clinging to the forefinger of my father, I discovered the Missouri River from a bluff top at Kansas City’.
Glass’ adventurous life would nonetheless be unknown to many of us, had it not been recently made into the celebrated movie ‘The Revenant’, which has collected twelve Oscar nominations and just recently won five prizes at the British Academy Film Awards.
This is, briefly, Hugh Glass’ story, as partly narrated by Neihardt. In 1823, Glass signs up for a fur-trading expedition. After his group is attacked by Native Americans, Glass is mauled by a fierce grizzly bear that leaves him badly injured. The expedition leaders believe that he has been mortally wounded and decide to proceed, leaving behind two men, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, to assist Glass until he dies.
So Major Henry called for volunteers,
Two men among the eighty who would stay
To wait upon Glass and keep the wolves away
Until he did whatever he should do.
But the two men, after a few days, put him in a shallow grave and go away, anxious to reach their group. Very seriously wounded, Glass slowly manages to regain strength and begins the journey, travelling almost 300 miles in two months, partly crawling, feeding himself with berries, raw meat and fish, fighting with the sub-zero temperature and hiding from the Native Americans. He resolves to reach Fort Kiowa and take revenge on the two men, who had betrayed and abandoned him, disobeying the order of the expedition leader.
Neihardt’s poem stresses Glass’ disappointment towards Jim Bridger, whom he considers almost like a son.
Jamie Jamie was a thief!
The very difficulty of belief
Was fuel for the simmering of rage;
That grew and grew, the more he strove to gage
The underlying motive of the deed.
Untempered youth might fail a friend in need;
But here had wrought some devil of the will,
Some heartless thing, too cowardly to kill,
That left to Nature what it dared not do!
So bellowsed, all the kindled soul of Hugh
Became a still white hell of brooding ire,
And through his veins regenerating fire
Ran, driving out the lethargy of pain.
Glass will eventually reach Fort Kiowa, but the end of the story, as told by Neihardt, is different than what is narrated in the Hollywood blockbuster.
In his poem, Neihardt puts great emphasis on the relationship between the two men. This aspect is what saves Glass from being consumed by his dangerous rage, caused by revenge. Glass comes to forgive Bridger, understanding his fears when he decided to leave Glass to die in the prairie.
Forgiveness is what emerges from the end lines of the poem, when Bridger is torn by a terrible sense of guilt.
“O Father, is there any hope for me?”
“Great hope indeed, my son!” so huskily
The other answers. “I recall a case
Like yours no matter what the time and
‘Twas somewhat like the story that you tell;
Each seeking and each sought, and both in hell
But in the tale I mind, they met at last.”
The youth sits up, white-faced and breathing
“They met, you say? What happened? Quick!
“The old man found the dear lad blind and sick
And both forgave ’twas easy to forgive
For oh we have so short a time to live “
Thus, the whole poem – seen alternatively from the two men’s perspectives – becomes a physical as well as a spiritual journey that allows both characters to ponder upon the meaning of revenge, consequent loss and the power of forgiveness.
It seems that Glass, after finding Bridger, searched for and eventually found the other man, Fitzgerald (seen as Glass’ beastly and greedy nemesis in the movie), and forgave him as well.
‘The Revenant’ roughly follows Glass’ chronicled story. What we do not find at all in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s movie, starring Leonardo di Caprio, is ‘forgiveness’. Probably, when it is a matter of satisfying the moviegoers, revenge has more appeal. For sure, Iñárritu’s latest movie is full of ambition, rush of action and energy, as it was in ‘Birdman’ but, in comparison, it left me much less gratified.
The demanding environment and the physical ordeals that Di Caprio, in particular, had to endure (swimming in icy water, suffering frostbite and hypothermia, eating raw fish or raw bison liver) help in a way to create a thinner divide between the ‘real story’ and the movie. They become part of the drama, giving us a clear idea of the difficulty of survival in an unhospitable land. The director, in an interview, was eager to point out that this ‘is an homage to the original cinema tradition, where the directors went to the places, and you risked challenges. I passionately believe that that should be an example of how film should be committed.’ We can agree with it, even if we know what perfect assistance can the cast immediately receive nowadays in order to recover from all the challenges set by the script, compared to decades ago.
At the same time, I found that these overdone realistic effects become a distraction, as the aesthetic qualities of the film take over and the true values that the movie could have transmitted are omitted, i.e. Glass’ spiritual redemption as the result of such an enduring journey. Even the depiction of the indigenous people as superior creatures with almost magical powers and of their struggle to survive the foreigners’ occupation lacks, in my view, originality.
A very interesting albeit extreme opinion about the movie has been expressed by Carole Cadwalladr in an article published on ‘The Guardian’ (‘The Revenant is meaningless pain porn’ 17/01/2016). According to this journalist, we do not need to go to the cinema to view ‘Ritualized brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution’, as the real world is already dark enough. I can share some of her views, especially about the pointless violence and on the vacuity of this tale of revenge. But I do not agree with her immoderate and sarcastic comment stating that the director’s excessive attention for authenticity in film-making is not as immersive as the brutal facts that we assist while watching ISIS’ propaganda videos, where pain is real.
But again, she might be right when she writes that the brutality of Isis’ videos has been inspired by Hollywood, because ‘It has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us.’ A good reflection should arise from this sentence too, as bold as it may sound: ‘Or ask ourselves why pain and suffering and brutalising women and pointless, fetishistic violence – when it’s done by Hollywood – wins awards.’
As I said, as much as we can share her views or not, one question comes to my mind: why wasn’t the film, in all its perfection and cinematographic grandeur, able to give me any emotions? Why didn’t I reacted with a ‘Wow!’, as Iñárritu’s expected from his audience (and said in an interview)? Why did the film fail to transmit the powerful transformation of a human, who went through such an extraordinary ordeal?
Maybe, I should just revert to Neihardt’s poem for that.
Glass eventually resumed trapping. In the mid-1820s he was again wounded during a clash with Native Americans; an arrowhead was reportedly shot into his back. About 1833 he was on an expedition near Fort Cass, present-day Treasure county, Montana, when he was involved in another confrontation with Indians. On that occasion, though, Glass was killed. His legend lives on through numerous articles and book as well as several films, including The Revenant (2015), in which Leonardo Di Caprio starred as Glass. (http://www.britannica.com/biography/Hugh-Glass)