Seeking Hugh Glass

Last winter’s blockbuster movie The Revenant brought renewed attention to the story of frontiersman Hugh Glass and his near-fatal encounter with a grizzly bear near present-day Lemmon in 1823. Scholars may argue the movie’s historical merits — and it did take liberties with the Glass story — but Jim McLaird says people have been taking liberties since the first time the tale was retold.

McLaird, Jim - headshot.jpgMcLaird, a retired professor of history at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, is the author of Hugh Glass: Grizzly Survivor. He says that separating fact from fiction in order to reveal the true man and his harrowing ordeal is a daunting task.

“There is no reliable eyewitness testimony,” McLaird says. “All information is second- and third-hand, and almost always embellished by a storyteller. Even the story purportedly told by Hugh Glass was recorded third-hand by a professional writer who compared it to the Robinson Crusoe tale. Numerous writers have retold the story with varying interpretations and details, a process that continues to this day.”

When seen through the prism of nearly 200 years of embellishment, it’s easier to accept The Revenant more as a fictional depiction than a biopic. Still, moviegoers seeking more may find answers in McLaird’s book.

“I am always glad when historical films are released, even though they rarely depict events accurately,” he says. “They can simply be enjoyed as dramatic productions, but they usually cause viewers to ask questions and attempt to learn a little more concerning what actually occurred.”

Story by the South Dakota Magazine staff, reprinted from the 2016 Festival of Books guide. 

Trailer from The Revenant (20th Century Fox)