For a few years I lived my life in light of the mountain men, imagining my very ordinary days enlarged by the companionship of Kit Carson, William Sublette, Jim Beckwourth, Jedidiah Smith and Jim Bridger. Their adventures became my adventures.
Long a lover of stories, and these tales told of brave men, unusual men, visionary men carving lives out of the rugged mountains of the American West. Trailblazers across the grand prairies, following the great rivers into the majestic Rockies, they lived among the native peoples, trapping beaver, rarely stopping for long as there was always one more mountain pass to discover.
In the little library that served our town, I read every biography of these men that I could find, and did the same in our school library. I didn’t ponder the books, I swallowed them. And then the day came when I wasn’t a boy anymore, and the books I read began to change. But years later I still look back on that time as wonderfully satisfying, remembering my hours and days spent alongside these heroes whose lives fueled my imagination.
Of course I thought of all this while watching “The Revenant,” the film which sort of tells the tale of Hugh Glass, a mountain man best known for having met his match with an angry mama grizzly bear. (There may be spoiler alerts, so be careful.) We only have the broad brushstrokes of Glass’ life, and so the screenwriters for the film have imagined a lot— though the story is set in places that look like the West, even if they had to film in Alberta and British Columbia, and Argentina, to get the mountains and skies and snow they wanted.
The actual story that has been passed down has a grace at its heart that is missed in the movie. No son was murdered, though there was a betrayal among companions, and when Glass finally found his betrayers, he forgave them— rather than, as the film offers, setting out into the snow to exact his revenge on the man who murdered his son. I suppose, in our coldhearted hearts, we are more drawn to bloodlust of every kind, and expect an eye-for-an-eye in life and on screen. Something murderous and hideous seems to go with our popcorn these days. To have an uncommon grace be the surprising climax would be a different story than we usually tell in our cineplex world. We want our blood and guts and hate and revenge, and “The Revenant” satisfies every one of those desires.
It is not that the film is without its tenderness and humanity. The story that is told of Glass and his son, untrue to history as it is, is profoundly moving. Fathers love their sons in ways that sons almost never understand, and sons love their fathers with bonds that only blood can create; this is true more often than not, with tragic exceptions that are always heart-aching. And the courageous rescue of the Arikara Indian woman by Glass, an important thread through the story, and her silent but sure protection of him at a moment when he could only see his death, are heroic windows into the human heart, always.
But even with the grace that allowed him to keep his scalp, we are left with the exhaustion wrought by Glass’s revenge. He did kill the one he wanted to kill, but for asking my attention for 2 1/2 hours, I wanted more than a stab-for-a-stab— even Glass did, if I read his face rightly. He got what he wanted, but didn’t find what he was looking for.
I hate cheap stories, and cheap endings, so I am not looking for Pollyanna. Instead I long for movies that wrestle with the complexity of the human condition, ones that remember to weave both glory and ruin into the fabric of a film. In the reality of life for every son of Adam and daughter of Eve, grace is the most difficult of all choices, even harder than fighting for your life across the wintry cold of the wild West. To turn the other cheek requires more from us than any other decision, which is why we so rarely forgive— and why revenge is always easier, and therefore is always a cheaper ending to a story.
I confess that reading about the true Glass, and finding that he gave grace, made him more heroic. The film “The Revenant” almost requires revenge; but I wonder if the moral imagination had been different, would the storytellers have given us a film for the ages, a story to be told again and again, generation after generation? A good story about a good man is hard to tell, but it is a story we all long to hear.
For more from Steve Garber, check out his Commons Blog from The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture.