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The Revenant Probably Seems Awfully Familiar to Anyone Who’s Seen 1971’s Man in the Wilderness

The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-nominated fight for survival in the snow-packed mountains of 1820s America, is an adaptation of the frontier legend of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper who spent six weeks traveling through hundreds of miles of South Dakota wilderness “in pursuit of vengeance against the men who left him for dead after he was mauled by a bear.” His is a story which has been further embellished with each passing decade, an oral history tradition further enabled by the fact that we actually know very little about Hugh Glass outside of this ordeal and there were very few eyewitnesses to any of it in the first place. By 1939, Glass had become known as the “the angriest man in U.S. history,” standing out as one of the most enduring legends of survival in the American West.

In the hands of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Glass’ tale has become “a love story between a father and his son,” a commentary on “the roots of capitalism” and a call to better “understand our environmental footprint.” However, Iñárritu isn’t actually the first director to take a crack at this.

In 1971, journeyman director Richard C. Sarafian made Man in the Wilderness, starring Richard Harris as the man mauled by a bear and left for dead.  For some reason, Sarafian and screenwriter Jack DeWitt renamed the characters, although they didn’t depart too wildly. Hugh Glass became Zachary Bass, and Major Andrew Henry, played by Domhnall Gleeson in The Revenant, became Capt. Henry (John Huston). Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same story, minus all of those trippy dream sequences featuring mountains of buffalo skulls. Plus, it sure looks like the villain in this version of the story is the deranged Capt. In other areas Man in the Wilderness sticks closer to the facts of Hugh Glass than The Revenant, but it too gives him a son even though there’s no historical record of Glass ever marrying or having any kids.

Here’s the trailer:

If the terrain featured in that trailer looks completely different to you than The Revenant that’s because it is. Man in the Wilderness, though not technically a Spaghetti Western, was shot in the same general area of Spain as all of those movies. The Revenant, on the other hand, shot in Canada and Argentina, among other locations.

Here’s the The New York Times’ 1971 review:

Man in the Wilderness must have been a backbreaking movie to make but it emerges as a flat, pretentious bore. The color vehicle starring Richard Harris opened yesterday at Loew’s State 1 and other showcases.

Apparently meant as a tribute to the American pioneer spirit, it opens with a truly horrendous scene with Harris, as a fur trapper, being mauled by a grizzly bear, the most impressive thing about the movie. Given token aid and then dumped by his buddies, the half-dead man inches back to civilization.

If only the picture had held fast to a simple uncluttered Crusoe-style survival story.

Instead, methodical flashbacks jump to the past, revealing only the hero’s atheism and bitterness over his wife’s death.

Worse, the picture also shifts to the other trappers, commanded by John Huston, who speculate at length about the absent man, while wheeling over the mountains a weird-looking, amphibious boat that looks like a Rube Goldberg version of Noah’s Ark. Richard C. Sarafian, the director, has staged some scenes involving Indian attacks and wild animals that although stomach-churning are not strong.

The scenery is rugged and fine. But Harris, a fine actor, looks like Rasputin drawn through a meat grinder. All we got out of this ode to the pioneer spirit was one thing: never tango with a grizzly.

It was a simpler time back then. Notice how there was practically no mention of the actual shooting conditions for the movie beyond the assumed “I’m sure it was probably pretty tough.”  Yeah. The Revenant wasn’t so lucky. Also, no bear rape jokes. That’s a plus.

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