Hugh Glass is crawling again.

Out of the dusty pages of history, out of the visions created by legends, mountain man Hugh Glass has been restored to life. On movie screens throughout the U.S. and the world, in a feature film as big and colorful as they come, the story of Hugh Glass is unfolding before our very eyes.

The Hugh Glass crawling through the wilderness onscreen is portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, the biggest and most realistic mountain man movie since Jeremiah Johnson. Just as it happened in real life back in 1823, Hugh Glass is literally crawling for survival. He is near death from the horrific wounds sustained during a grizzly attack. The bear’s claws have slashed the man’s body like sword blades, and

the beast has taken great bites into Glass’ body and even his head. Glass is so far gone that his two mountain man companions have given him up for dead. Not only have they left him alone, one of them helped himself to Glass’ rifle and all his gear.

Hugh Glass is not dead. He isn’t “very much alive,” as the expression goes, but he is able to crawl. This is exactly what he does, with hopes of somehow clinging to life and making his way to Fort Kiowa, some 200 miles away on the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota. As he crawls, he is fueled by his desire to live and a raging need to take revenge on the men who have betrayed him.

Revived Legend

The Revenant is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Punke. The movie arrives on a few screens on December 25, and in full release on January 8, 2016. As I write this, previews are lighting up computer and TV screens. As a self-confessed addict of everything “mountain man,” from books to films to reality TV shows, I have been hooked by the action, scope and filmmaking splendor I see in The Revenant previews. A couple obvious questions, however, spring into mind as I watch them. Is this the movie as good as Jeremiah Johnson? Will it treat the Huge Glass legend fairly?

Since “revenant” is a word I’ve never heard or used in my life, I had to hit the dictionary to learn it means “one that returns after death or a long absence.” The story-telling promise in those words has attracted other writers and filmmakers before The Revenant. Hugh Glass’ epic crawl and fight for life and revenge inspired the novel Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred and the movie Man in the Wilderness. A half-dozen or so non-fiction books have also been devoted to the Hugh Glass saga. My interest in mountain men has even led me to write some magazine articles about them and to edit an entire book, Tales of the Mountain Men. That book included a chapter on Hugh Glass, an excerpt from Lord Grizzly.

Now, The Revenant has my interest in Hugh Glass boiling over with new enthusiasm. Even before seeing the film, I want to learn everything I can about the movie production. And I want to know more about the man himself.

The producers of the movie make no claim that the film is a “true story,” one that actually happened just as shown. The subtitle on The Revenant says it is “inspired by true events.” Michael Punke instructed readers the same way in the original novel. That’s fair enough, because the details of Hugh Glass’ early life are clouded with mystery. The events of the grizzly attack and its aftermath are well documented however. Hugh Glass did survive his injuries in a trek of survival and revenge that are now part of our frontier history.

Although “the crawl” is a high point in the Hugh Glass drama, both in the movie and in his real life, Hugh Glass was no tenderfoot. We know today that his background was a mixture of myths, exaggerations and a few hard and proven facts. We know for sure that by the time he ran into the nightmare grizzly, Hugh Glass at 43 was a veteran of Indian fights and had the hunting and trapping skills that made the mountain men self-sufficient.

Heading West

Despite the sketchy details of his youth, we are told Hugh Glass was born in Pennsylvania in 1780. Legends, unsubstantiated, of his early years include the colorful, folk-hero tale of being captured by privateers commanded by Jean Lafitte. Glass is said to have been forced to be a pirate for two years, then escaped in 1819 in the area of what today is Galveston, Texas.

Glass and a fellow escapee were resourceful and lucky enough to survive a trek north, through hostile country. But their luck ran out in what is now Kansas when a band of Pawnee captured them. As Glass watched, the Pawnee commenced their favorite form of torture on his friend, pushing tiny sticks of fat pine into his body, from the feet on up. When they set fire to the lower sticks, the flames spread rapidly, making the body into a human torch.

Glass talked his way out of this fate, it is said, by begging the chief to accept a gift that had gone unseen in his pockets. The rare package of cinnabar, which makes brilliant red paint, saved his life. He lived several years with the Pawnee, learning their skills of survival and living off the land as an adopted son of the tribe. He no doubt fought with the Pawnee against enemy tribes, but any attacks on white men are not recorded. His life with the Pawnee ended in 1822 when he joined his chief on a journey to St. Louis to visit with the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame. Glass left the tribe here, a loner without any ties, his eyes still turned from his native Pennsylvania to the mountains of the Upper Missouri.

Whether or not that happened as described, we do know for certain that in 1823, in St. Louis, Glass saw this ad in the January 16th edition of the Missouri Republican:

For the Rocky Mountains

The subscribers wish to engage One Hundred MEN, to ascend the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains. There to be employed as Hunters. As a compensation to each man fit for such business, $200 Per Annum will be given for his services, as aforesaid.

For particulars, apply to J. V. GARMIER or W. ASHLEY, at St. Louis. The expedition will set out for this place on or before the first of March next.

Ashley & Henry


General William Ashley was the expedition’s organizer and leader, and Major Andrew Henry was in charge of the advance brigade. Ashley’s “One Hundred MEN” included several names that would eventually make the mountain man hall of fame, including Jim Bridger, then 19. Hugh Glass couldn’t resist.

Left For Dead

In late August, the advance party was encamped on the Grand River, in what is present day Perkins County, South Dakota, rerouting their path to the Upper Missouri by way of the Yellowstone. Earlier that summer, one of their groups had lost 16 men in an attack by the Arikara (Ree) tribe.

They had retaliated with a murderous raid on the Arikara, supported by troops from Fort Leavenworth and warriors from the Arikara’s deadliest enemy, the Sioux. Henry’s unit was to keep pushing toward the Upper Missouri, to open the fur trade, while waiting for a second expedition from General Ashley to rendezvous with them the following spring and bring out the furs.

On August 23, Hugh Glass was hunting, carrying his beloved and trusty Kentucky flintlock, a .53-caliber Anstadt capable of throwing a ball 200 yards. Hunting alone, the way he always liked, Glass suddenly came upon two grizzly bear cubs. He knew instantly he was in trouble. The sow would not be far away. His fears were confirmed about the same time he got his flintlock ready. He got off a shot before she charged, but it did little good. The great bear was on him in a slashing, crashing storm of fury.

Glass was unconscious when fellow hunters from the brigade found him beneath the dead bear. One of the trappers described Glass as “tore nearly to peases.” They patched him up as best they could. The group carried him in a travois for a couple of days, then Captain Henry decided Glass could not be saved. He paid two men a bonus to stay behind with Glass while the main body pressed on. Young Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald—23 and a hothead bully—volunteered to wait for Glass to die. They were to bury him and then catch up with the main group.

After a day or so, Glass was still breathing but certainly seemed on the edge of death. The two men staying with him rolled him into a buffalo robe and started digging a grave. Then came an Indian attack, and Bridger and Fitzgerald bolted. They not only took off, but Fitzgerald grabbed Glass’ rifle, his bag of “possibles” and even his knife. They caught up with the main brigade and told

Captain Henry that Hugh Glass was dead and buried.

Hugh Glass was not dead. Eventually, he began to crawl, and eat roots and berries, literally clawing his way over the ground like an animal. His life was probably saved when he found a buffalo carcass from a wolf kill. Eventually, he could stand and limp along. He made a crutch from a stick. Onward he continued, with visions of killing Bridger and Fitzgerald aflame in his thoughts. His journey eventually put him among friendly Sioux who helped him get to Fort Kiowa.

I have no intention of spoiling the movie for our readers by revealing what happened to Hugh Glass after he reached Fort Kiowa. Everyone knows Jim Bridger went on to become a legendary mountain man himself.

As for Glass, I can say that he went on to other battles with Indian tribes before leaving the mountains for the southwest. Life on the Santa Fe Trail could not hold him, however, and he returned to the high-country Rockies. In the winter of 1833, Glass and two fellow trappers were ambushed by Arikara while crossing the ice of the frozen Yellowstone river. This time there was no miracle to save the life of Hugh Glass.

On Location

The movie that brings us the new revelation of the Hugh Glass legend is a big one in every way. Reports we have seen estimate it will play 2 hours and 31 minutes long. We can see from the trailer that it is action-packed with all the color, sounds and atmosphere of the mountain-man era, and it is far and away the most significant mountain-man movie since Jeremiah Johnson. That it will be compared to Jeremiah Johnson is inevitable, but from what I can see from the trailers, and from information about the film gleaned from the filmmakers themselves, The Revenant is going to stand tall at the box office.

Playing Hugh Glass, Leonardo DiCaprio heads a big cast that includes Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald and Will Poulter as Jim Bridger. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, the movie is a big-budget enterprise co-produced by five companies and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Academy Award-winning director of Birdman.

Shot in Alberta, Canada, and Argentina, the film’s autumn setting was difficult to recreate in weather conditions that were sometimes too hot and often too cold. The decision of Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot in only natural light heightens the realism immensely, but was tough on filming schedules. Also, Iñárritu refused to use computer-generated effects.

If The Revenant turns out to the successful epic it promises to be, the difficulties in making the film will seem worthwhile. For me, the chance of seeing a new, big-budget mountain man movie like this one will be a present I really look forward to enjoying this Christmas. I already told you I’m a mountain man junkie, eager for books, films or whatever creations I can find that take my mind and spirit to the time when such men roamed the mountains, “loose and free’s as any animal.”

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