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Episodes: Nit-picking The Revenant for really stupid and petty reasons


Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 04 2015

5 min read




I saw The Revenant, the big Oscar hopeful, tonight. I'm under embargo for a few more hours, so I can't tell you anything officially. But I can complain about something really stupid that will be of no consequence to approximately 99.9999999 percent of people who watch this movie.

The main reason I was looking forward to The Revenant was not its star, Leonardo DiCaprio (who is stellar in some things and just kinda there in others), nor its director Alejandro G. Inarritu (who usually makes movies I don't like). No, it was because the film told the story of HUGH GLASS, MOUNTAIN MAN, and fixture of my youthful imagination.

See, ol' Hugh was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his compatriots, then crawled hundreds of miles to a fort in order to get patched up. Along the way, he let maggots eat his dead flesh! Then he went in search of the people who'd ditched him, because he wanted his stuff and/or revenge. (The record's not really clear on this point.) It's a great true story, the sort of larger than life tale that's harder and harder to come by these days. While I'm sure it's been embellished over the years, too, the heart of it is basically accurate. What Hugh did is something most of us could not do.

And here's the best part: It all takes place in South Dakota!

To say that South Dakota was not exactly teeming with weird local legends when I grew up there would be an understatement. Yeah, we had the Wild Bill Hickocks and Calamity Janes of Deadwood, and many of the more famous Lakota Sioux leaders passed through South Dakota or spent lots of time there during their lives. But if you were writing a biography of a famous South Dakotan for your sixth grade class, as I was, EVERYbody was writing about Wild Bill Hickock or Sitting Bull.

Hugh Glass, though, nobody was writing about. I dug him out of some "Weird South Dakota" book or something similar, then embellished on the scanty historical record to really convey the gravity of his bear wounds, the agony of his journey, and the desire to survive that drove him ever onward. Hugh was a survivor in the truest Destiny's Child sense of that word. That bear couldn't stop him. Couldn't even begin to try.

The Revenant was shot in Alberta, Canada, in what appears to be mountainous territory adjacent to Banff or something similar. (If I were writing this in my official review, I would actually look this up; since I'm not, you just get my vague estimations.) Herein lies the problem. Nowhere in South Dakota looks like this. Hugh Glass was attacked in Perkins County, South Dakota. Here's a plaque that commemorates the attack. Glass mostly took a boat downstream from there to Fort Kiowa. (He doesn't in the movie, because that would be boring.) Fort Kiowa was near where Chamberlain, South Dakota, is today. Here's a picture of Chamberlain.

You'll notice no mountains. And very few trees.

And, look, I get it. Nobody is going to care about this but, literally, me (and maybe my wife if I could convince her to see this movie). Nobody in the movie says the words "South Dakota," because the state hadn't been invented yet, and even the Sioux are name checked but once. The beautiful mountains of Alberta are probably more interesting than the dull prairies of my home.

Or maybe they're not! I've long wanted to see a movie shot in the Great Plains that uses them like, say, Lawrence of Arabia uses the desert, as a long, endless nothing across which you can see great distances. The Revenant probably isn't that movie. (Again, watching a guy hobble across the prairie is much less interesting than watching him do so across mountains, even if one of the reasons Hugh made it probably had something to do with the low variance in terrain.) But maybe someday, we'll get one.

And that's the thing, right? Everybody's an expert about something, and the second you apply your knowledge to fiction (which necessarily has to simplify to keep things moving), you're going to come off as a spoilsport. An accurate Hugh Glass movie would be a much more boring Hugh Glass movie. So for now, we've got this one. I'll just keep waiting for a four-hour film that's just some guy hobbling around the wilderness.

Until then, I'm just going to have to watch movies like this and quietly grouse to myself about how IN REAL LIFE, THE MISSOURI RIVER WAS JUST RIGHT THERE, SO WHY NOT JUST TAKE THAT, GOD?


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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