DiCaprio, Trump, and ferreting facts from fictions in film and in politics
by Allen Best
Two new movies arrived in theaters recently, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson as 19th century frontiersmen in the American West. They brim with violence and lavish scenery and, particularly in DiCaprio’s movie, seek to tell great truths. But do truths require facts in movies—or in politics?
Jackson plays the part of a bounty hunter, a former slave in a post-Civil War story set in Wyoming. Director Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” was inspired by old TV Westerns, not by history. Purists, though, will recognize the backdrop is not Wyoming, but rather Colorado’s Wilson Peak, in the San Juan Mountains.
As Tarantino’s crew last winter awaited snow at Telluride, DiCaprio was fending off frostbite in Alberta, near Fortress Mountain, a ski area south of Banff once owned by the Aspen Skiing Co.
In director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s visually sizzling “The Revenant,” DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, who in fact was part of fur-trapping expedition that puddled \ from St. Louis up the Missouri River. Names of Glass’s companions linger on the landscape today, including: (David) Jackson’s Hole in Wyoming, (Jim) Beckwourth Pass in California, and (Jim) Bridger Bowl, a ski area in Montana.
Trappers lived dangerous lives, but the story of Glass is singular. As he scouted for game in 1823, a sow grizzly with cubs nearby attacked him. He killed the bear, with the aid of companions, but was expected to die. Companions dug his grave and, for reasons unclear, took off with his rifle, knife, and other tools. Instead of dying, Glass set his broken leg and laid in maggots to cleanse his wounds, before he finally reached the nearest American settlement perhaps 200 miles away.
At least we think we know these things. Even then, the story was fluffed up in print and probably campfire tellings. Facts have never gotten in the way of good stories.
Credits at the very end of “The Revenant” say it was based on “actual historical events” via a novel by Michael Punke. That makes it second cousin to the best efforts of historians, which may make it third cousin to fact. The stuff about revenge? Way, way overstated. The son? Nice plot device. Floating down a cold mountain river in a buffalo robe? Don’t try it at home. My suggestion: just call the lead character “Bill-Bob” and Jim Bridger “Lefty.”
The Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyo., described the movie as historically correct in “backdrop, clothes, guns, keelboats and atmosphere.” The geography is wrong, though. Instead of the dramatic Canadian Rockies, Glass was mauled on the Great Plains, probably in South Dakota. Too, it was in August, not winter.
Making the rounds, from Wired magazine to late-night TV, DiCaprio labored to attach layers of ponderous meaning to “The Revenant.” Responding to a simple question from Charlie Rose, DiCaprio talked about the “capitalistic surge to extract the resources from the land, kill these animals and send them off to Europe—and here you have these Native American populations whose culture is decimated in the process.”
DiCaprio is right about part of it. Mountain men trapped beaver, whose pelts were made into hats fashionable in Europe. Even by the 1820s, the Rocky Mountains were part of global trade.
He might also be right about the human race pillaging the planet. But DiCaprio’s comments also imply some primeval goodness in these mountains and plains arriving Euoramericans despoiled. I asked a Colorado-based archaeologist, Anne McKibbin, whether prehistoric Native Americans here really were more peaceful before Euroamericans stirred the pot. She reported evidence of violence and cannibalism in some burials, but no firm answer to my question. “I’m not sure we know,” she said. However, she added, Euroamericans did create population pressures and new hostilities.
In the 1840s, W.M. Boggs was in the Arkansas River Valley at Bent’s Fort. He was related to the Bents, who were allied with and intermarried with the Cheyenne. The frontier he described in a 1930 manuscript published in The Colorado Magazine was, like these movies, a place of frequent violence and desperation. The Cheyenne warred with the Pawnee. Too, they often went hungry. At one point, unable to find bison, the Cheyenne at last strangle an old dog and boil it. Repulsed but hungry, Boggs instead ate tree bark.
Violence also accompanied American conquests in the 1840s. Again, there were Boggs family witnesses: in Taos, the murder of Charles Bent, the new governor of New Mexico. Then, in California, Kit Carson arrested and murdered three non-threatening Californianos, as the Mexican inhabitants were called. The explorer John Charles Frémont ordered the executions. This was in now genteel Marin County. Frémont said he had no use for prisoners. Today, Colorado has peaks, towns, and counties named after Fremont and Kit Carson, plus Boggsville, 90 miles downstream from Pueblo, where Kit Carson died in 1868.
We grant movie-makers and novelists license to fudge facts of true stories in pursuit of simple entertainment and deeper truths. Mary Hallock Foote’s letters from 19th century Leadville inspired “Angle of Repose,” Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The movie “Chinatown” was rooted in truths about Los Angeles’s quest for water in the early 20th century—although, strictly as a history report, it’d probably get an F.
Donald Trump flunked history in saying that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey were publicly cheering on Sept. 11, 2001. Still, the entertaining Trump remains atop the Republican polls. Some must think Trump told a deeper truth. But fabricating facts to comport with our perceived truths is the start of big trouble. As a nation, we’ve marched off to war once or twice spurred by facts invented to further some perceived truth.
As for this new DiCaprio movie, it’s an entertaining yarn, but I was reminded of that Kris Kristofferson line about “party truth, partly fiction.” I’m OK with that as long we keep them straight. Nearly all Hugh Glass books have been checked out from Denver-area libraries, which to me suggests plenty of people are trying.
This essay was originally published in the Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, issue of The Denver Post.