As its numerous awards and Oscar nominations would suggest, Alejandro G. Iñárritu's The Revenant (2015) is a powerful film, but it gets some matters totally wrong. Now, I don't expect a documentary approach to the legendary mountain man Hugh Glass, and I have no objection to making a film loosely based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Michael Punke (which I haven't read). Nor do I object to giving Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, in case anyone doesn't know) a son he never had, any more than having his dead Pawnee wife appear to him in visions. So what if the actual Hugh Glass never rode his horse off a cliff and, saved from death by falling into a convenient tree, then eviscerated his dead horse to climb inside its body cavity to survive the night? Hugh Glass is granted almost no inner life, but this is an epic of survival. A film is a visual work of fiction, and what counts in fiction is how well it works.
On one level, this film works pretty well. For the most part, the landscape looks like the Rocky Mountains, except perhaps for a panoramic sunset which I'd guess was filmed in Tierra del Fuego. The dialog is neither archaic nor contemporary. The fort is architecturally convincing; its inhabitants are not sanitized like Bingham's jolly boatmen but boisterously drunk. This marginally civil culture makes a powerful statement about life at the edge of the wilderness. The costumes are appropriate to the time period of the 1820's, and the guns are flintlocks. (There is one lapse: in a tense moment, expecting attack, one of the men is aiming his rifle with the frizzen open and forward, so there was no way the hammer with its flint could strike the spark needed to make a flintlock fire.) By and large, however, this seeming veracity is at odds with the ignorance displayed by scriptwriters Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith about the realities of survival in the wild.
Again and again, this film betrays a complete ignorance of the wild and of ways to survive in it. An elementary example involves wet feet. Anyone who has read accounts of exploration from Lewis and Clark onwards will recall that they are always stopping after fording a river to build a fire to dry their footwear. In The Revenant, however, nobody ever puts on a pair of dry moccasins or dries his boots. The trappers are continually wading around in water close to freezing, unconcerned about their feet going numb, let alone about the subsequent hazards of frostbite, trench foot, and hypothermia.
Higher on the scale of ignorance is what happens when a person goes over a waterfall. The Revenant has some exciting footage of Glass floating down a turbulent river. As the camera pulls back, we can see he's about to go over a major waterfall. He does, and then his head promptly pops up above the water. He laboriously makes it to shore.
But, as every wilderness canoer or kayaker knows, that's not how waterfall hydraulics work. At the base of a falls, there's a vertically oriented and back flowing circulation of water that traps a person and keeps him from getting up to the surface--that's why waterfalls are known as "keepers." One's only hope of surviving is counterintuitive: to swim downwards to get below the circulating current and then to swim to the side. In the real world, as opposed to the one depicted in The Revenant, Glass would have drowned.
The director has commented that the river is important symbolically to Glass's epic ordeal. Sure enough, just as he's about to be captured by a party of Arikaras, he manages to escape by taking to the river and letting it carry him downstream. At this point, it's still winter. Apparently, nobody involved with the film realized that Glass would have lost consciousness in something like fifteen to twenty minutes and drowned. Why? Because cold water removes your body heat twenty-five times faster than cold air. I've capsized into a glacier-fed river in late spring, not winter as in The Revenant. I was wearing a farmer john wet suit, and it still felt like a cold hand being clamped on my heart. You lose body heat and strength with fearful rapidity. When your core temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, you become confused and perhaps hallucinatory; when it falls lower, you die. But rather than drowning (yet again!), Glass serenely floats away down this river not of death but of life.
All films require a prolonged suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, the imagined reality of The Revenant is only rewarding to an audience equally ignorant about wilderness survival. I'm confident it will win lots of awards. It's a good film, but it gets too much wrong to be more than occasionally persuasive to this viewer.