Sep­a­rat­ing truth from leg­end

Facts have never got­ten in the way of good sto­ries— in moviemak­ing or in pol­i­tics.

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - 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. The films 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 in Tel­luride, DiCaprio was fend­ing off frost­bite in Al­berta, Canada, 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 a fur-trap­ping ex­pe­di­tion that trav­eled from St. Louis up the Mis­souri River. Names of Glass’ com­pan­ions linger on the land­scape to­day, in­clud­ing Jack­son’s Hole in Wy­oming (David Jack­son); Beck­wourth Pass in Cal­i­for­nia (for Jim Beck­wouth); and Bridger Bowl, a ski area in Mon­tana, for Jim Bridger.

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 se­ri­ously in­jured and ex­pected to die. Com­pan­ions dug his grave and, for rea­sons un­clear, took off with his ri­fle, knife and other tools. Glass set his bro­ken leg and laid in mag­gots to cleanse his wounds be­fore set­ting out to reach 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.

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 that 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 stran­gled an old dog and boiled 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 non­threat­en­ing 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 moviemak­ers and nov­el­ists li­cense to fudge facts 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’ 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.

“The Revenant” is an en­ter­tain­ing yarn, but I was re­minded of that Kris Kristof­fer­son line about “partly truth, partly fic­tion.” I’m OK with that, as long we keep them straight. Most of the books on Hugh Glass have been checked out from Den­ver-area li­braries, which to me sug­gests plenty of peo­ple are try­ing.

In the 1820s, fron­tiers­man Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant”) set out on a path of vengeance against those who left him for dead af­ter a bear maul­ing. Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Fox

Sa­muel L. Jack­son in a scene from “The Hate­ful Eight.” The We­in­stein Com­pany

Allen Best of Ar­vada pub­lishes an on­line news­magazine found at moun­tain­town­news. net.

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