The Revenant was without a doubt one of the biggest films of the past 12 months. The production was incredible, the anticipation and tension before its release was high, and of course Mr. DiCaprio finally won his Oscar. However, there are a couple of facts that some people may not know about The Revenant and its past. First, it’s based on the true life story of Hugh Glass second, in 1971 a similar film called Man in the Wilderness was released. So does this make The Revenant just another Hollywood reboot, or can we just forget this 70’s Western ever existed?
Man in the Wilderness is at its core a Western. Westerns in the 70’s were as ubiquitous as superhero films now. Everyone loved them, and stories could fit into an easy and familiar structure. In 1971, Richard C. Sarafain, who also directed a range of other films including Vanishing Point (1971) and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), decided to take on the infamous and fascinating story of Hugh Glass, the man who survived in the wild completely alone. The immediate difference that we can see with this film is that the producers have changed the character’s name. Even though Wilderness is based on true events, Sarafain has decided to make it more of a fictional tale, so in this version we follow the story of Zachary Bass, played by Richard Harris, who we will come back to. In The Revenant the director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu (2014’s Birdman), has kept the name the same and has followed the story of Hugh Glass a lot more faithfully.
Apart from the name change, one of the biggest differences in Man in the Wilderness is the parallel story that follows the group that Glass/Bass was traveling with. As in The Revenant, we see Bass with a fur-trapping party transporting valuable pelts; however, there is also one other rather large piece of cargo not brought into the 2015 version, and that is the massive boat they are dragging along through the wilderness. That’s right: in Man in the Wilderness Captain Henry has his men and horses dragging along a huge boat on wheels to get it to the Mississippi River. To me this seems a rather odd and likely expensive detail to add to an already interesting film. The Revenant proves that a massive boat on wheels was not necessary for the Captain’s story to progress.
The two protagonists are very different but do definitely have similarities, because they are supposed to be the same guy. It took me longer than I care to admit to realise that they have different names. I’ve scoured the Internet and can find no reason for the name change other than to keep it fictional. The set-up is very similar, showing the men traveling with their newly acquired pelts. We don’t get to see the natives attack in Man in the Wilderness, but both films use a deer hunting scene to establish Glass/Bass.
The turning point for this story is the bear attack, it is the key moment that starts this epic story. In The Revenant this scene has already become famous, with a rather realistic CGI bear absolutely destroying Glass. There is no question that he puts up a pretty good fight, but suffers heavy injuries. Due to the technological constraints of the 1970s, in Man in the Wilderness we see a shot of a bear running towards the camera and then what is clearly a man in a bear costume jumping on Bass. It doesn’t quite match the gravitas of The Revenant. Bass doesn’t even fight back, which really gives me no reason to want him to live. This apathy follows me then throughout the rest of the film. It almost seems like Bass’s character was fine within a day or two and there wasn’t much of a struggle to stay alive, and at one point he even had a pet rabbit? I mean why?! Just eat it, don’t feed it your food! Conversely, I found Glass in The Revenant to be hard-willed, suffering and quite possibly the manliest man out there. Bass’s journey was more of an unlucky series of events which slightly delayed his rendezvous with the rest of the group.
Captain Henry in both stories is also a rather interesting contrast. In The Revenant, the Captain is portrayed by a man who has been taking Hollywood by storm, with his range of skills and performances, Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens ), who plays the character very differently to his Man in the Wilderness counterpart John Huston (The Maltese Falcon). Before I go any further, it is true that this has a lot to do with the script, but Gleeson’s performance in The Revenant is excellent and Huston’s less so. Gleeson’s Captain clearly wants to keep Glass alive, without putting the rest of the group in much danger, whereas Huston wants Bass dead within hours of the bear attack. The main reason I am bringing this contrast up is that it changes the direction of the story. In The Revenant, Glass is out to get revenge on the man who killed his only son, Fitzgerald, whereas Bass is a bit annoyed at Fitzgerald for leaving him, but really is out to kill the Captain for leaving him behind. Would it have really been that hard to chuck Bass up on the boat and pull him along? Wouldn’t have been that hard. At least in The Revenant they have an excuse for leaving him behind. This is another reason why the boat baffles me.
Man in the Wilderness is a drama forced into the clothes of a Western, and it just doesn’t fit. The story gets boring, the portrayal of the Native Americans is questionable, and I had no reason to want Bass to survive. On the other hand is The Revenant, which takes this fantastic story and really makes us care about Glass and getting his revenge. The wintry, mountainous setting makes a lot more sense than the desert/forest that Bass wanders through. Also, the relationship between Glass and Fitzgerald is thrilling and tense, the audience can feel the hatred between the two of them. In The Revenant the audience wants to see Glass kill Fitzgerald; in Man in the Wilderness the Captain was a bit mean, but I didn’t feel that drive. What makes The Revenant stand out is Leo; he really did deserve that Oscar, and I am very glad that this story got a new lease on life.
As much as I have stomped on Man in the Wilderness, it was a good film for its time. With some interesting shots, which I haven’t seen in older films before, I give Man in the Wilderness 2.5/5. It’s not bad, but I’m glad that they made The Revenant, as it finally gave us a version of this story that is not only acted to an extremely high standard but is also visually stunning. It is gripping and tense right up to the final shot.