I’ve decided to do a post about the real-life story (or at least myth) surrounding early 19th-century fur-trapper, frontiersman, and immortal demon boyscout, Hugh Glass. I’m cobbling this together from loads of different online sources.
SPOILERS BELOW. Also possible triggers for minor mentions of rape
The broad outlines of the film are pretty true to the story we know of Glass. In 1822, Glass answered an ad for men to go up the Missouri river on a fur-trapping expedition. He was about 40 years old, which (in 1822, without the assistance of modern medicine and hygiene) actually meant he was getting on a bit.
In 1823, the party was attacked by Arikara warriors and the surviving members decided that it would be safer to abandon their route on the river, lest the Arikara come back. They traveled over land toward the Yellowstone River.
Glass went out to scout for sources of game and managed to disturb a grizzly bear with two cubs, resulting in the savage attack which is shot exactly like a rape scene in the film (resulting in the weird rumors that Leonardo Dicaprio got raped by a bear in the movie).
(I would actually love to talk about the way this scene was shot, and how important it is for current gender politics that this horrifically traumatic, violent event is now culturally linked to ideas of rape, especially in such a conventionally masculine film with a very masculine target audience. But that is a discussion for another day, on a different blog.)
BACK TO GLASS
The bear mangled him up quite badly, as bears are wont to do, but Glass managed to kill it with the help of two of his companions (not single-handedly, as he does in the film). The other trappers did not believe Glass would survive his injuries, which included a broken leg and ribs, a punctured throat, a severed scalp, several cuts that exposed bone, and wounds that were starting to get infected. They patched him up as best as they could, but the prognosis wasn’t great.
The commander of the expedition, General Ashley, asked for two volunteers (would would get paid very handsomely) to remain behind until Glass died, and to bury him properly. The two volunteers were Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald (played excellently in the film by Tom Hardy, as a sufficiently dangerous mumbly dirtbag).
Bridger and Fitzgerald claimed that Glass had died and that they were attacked by Arikara and forced to flee. There is a bit of debate about how complicit Bridger was in abandoning Glass, who was VERY MUCH STILL ALIVE, seriously injured, and without any weapons, equipment, or food. He was 250 miles from the nearest fort (although some sources say it was 200 miles, 100 miles, or even 80 miles. Regardless: a lot of miles; too many miles; all the fucking miles).
In the film, this begins in the late fall and continues right through a South Dakota winter, turning the whole film into one giant popsicle hellscape. In reality, I don’t know what time of year the attack happened, but I assume it was the summer. Glass, in order to prevent gangrene, found maggots and introduced them to his wounds. I don’t know if maggots would have been present outside in the middle of winter, but I doubt it. Is there a maggot expert out there who can clarify?
So he packed up his maggots and his protruding bones and his giant bear pelt (which the other two assholes had surprisingly left behind) and decided to CRAWL 250 miles to the fort.
This is the most metal thing to ever happen on this blog.
Just as in the film, Glass was helped by friendly Native Americans (who, apparently in real life, SEWED the bearskin directly on to Glass’s back to help cover his wounds) (I lied, this is the most metal thing to ever happen on this blog), he survived on roots and berries, except when he chased off wolves from a buffalo carcass so he could feast on it instead, and eventually made it to the fort.
The only significant difference between the film and real life is that in real life Glass made a raft and floated down the river for at least part of trip, making the whole trek considerably less arduous. He started out crawling 1 mile per day, rested for a while by the buffalo carcass until it turned rancid and he was able to stumble a bit, by which point he began walking 10 miles per day. The raft had to help a goddamned lot.
There are a number of frontier legends and rumors, which I’m just going to copy and paste from the Telegraph article here: “Some said that Glass killed and ate a rattlesnake during his journey; that he awoke from a slumber to find a grizzly bear licking maggots from his wounds. The length of his crawl swelled from 80 miles to 100 miles to 200 miles. His back story became more elaborate: he had been kidnapped by the French-American pirate Jean Lafitte as a young man, had been captured by the Pawnee tribe and won his freedom with a pouch of scarlet vermilion powder.”
Despite the increasingly unlikely mythos developing around Glass, he did manage to survive his dire wounds and trek a miserably long way through myriad dangers, and made it to the fort in about 7 weeks.
Once at the fort, he recovered from his wounds (which, presumably, took longer than the single night that his recovery takes in the film). After he had healed, he went off on his quest for vengeance. He managed to track down Bridger, but forgave him because of his youth. Bridger, sufficiently shamed, then went on to become a celebrated frontier figure and Wild West hero in his own right.
Fitzgerald, on the other hand, had fucked off to Nebraska and joined the army.
Glass tracked him down, but all he managed to do was recover his stolen rifle from Fitzgerald, because killing a soldier would have carried the death penalty. So Fitzgerald just got to carry on living, mumbling his way across the midwest. *cowboy voice* And if you listen real close, you can still hear his ghost mumblin’ to this day . . .
WHAT KIND OF ANTICLIMACTIC BULLSHIT IS THIS?
Glass kept trapping and trading for the rest of his life. He died less than a decade later in an attack by the Arikara.