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History vs. Hollywood

Prompted by a recent article in the Brandon Sun written by Suyoko Tsukamoto, I went to see The Revenant.

Prompted by a recent article in the Brandon Sun written by Suyoko Tsukamoto, I went to see The Revenant. The article compared the grizzly bear attack in the film with one that happened to Yukon hunter, trapper and outdoorsman Jim Christie in 1909.

Christie farmed in Carman, Manitoba, before coming to the Klondike. Despite his age (he was nearing 50) Christie later enlisted in World War I and became a legendary soldier. I’ll return to Christie in a moment.

I have had a hard time dealing with Hollywood renderings of Canadian stories, particularly stories related to the Yukon. Especially things historical. Typical Hollywood characterization of Canada can be quite deplorable.

Take for instance an episode of a television series called JAG in which a whistleblower in the American diplomatic service was punished for leaking information about an American submarine that sank in Russian waters. When he was reassigned to Guyana as punishment, a friend commented that it could have been worse - they could have sent him to ...Canada!

I look for historical inaccuracies in film and television. In a recent episode of Murdoch Mysteries, Murdoch’s wife is seen working in the morgue; in the background, you can see their son merrily bouncing up and down in his jolly jumper while she dissects.

I checked out the Jolly Jumper. According to the corporate website, the device was invented in 1910 in Canada by Susan Olivia Poole for her infant son Joseph.

According to the company’s website, “She made the harness or saddle from a cloth diaper and a blacksmith created a soft-action steel spring. An axe handle was used for the spreader bar.” She made more of them for her other children and grandchildren, and in 1948, the Jolly Jumper was ready for mass production. 1948 is outside the time range of this television series, and I did not see an axe handle in the Jolly Jumper employed by Dr. Ogden.

I also found laughable the portrayal of the Klondike in a Jack London program about a man who was coming to the Klondike to sell eggs. The closer he got to Dawson City, the smaller the Yukon River became, until he arrives at the gold rush town, and wades across the Yukon River in his rubber boots!

Pierre Berton mocked Hollywood’s portrayal of Canada, Canadians, and our history in his excellent book Hollywood’s Canada. There and in other articles, he describes how the plot to the television series Klondike (based on his classic book of the same name) was influenced more by budget, sponsors’ pressures, and a stilted preconception of what the public wants to see on television than it was by historical fact.

The most disturbing violation of historical accuracy in recent times was the embarrassing Klondike mini-series on the Discovery Channel that made many in the Yukon laugh. Full of gunfights and stacks of bodies typical of a Hollywood Western, it did not live up to its billing of “historical accuracy.”

So it was with much caution that I purchased my tickets to see The Revenant. The mauling of back woodsman Hugh Glass (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) by the grizzly bear comes early in the film. I found it both graphic and compelling. At one point, the camera comes in close as the hulking beast sniffs around DiCaprio’s head, and the lens is even fogged by the animal’s breath.

This portrayal actually gave me shivers as I flashed back to a trip I took 40 years ago to the abandoned weather station at Snag, not far from Beaver Creek. I woke up in my tent one morning to the sound of a bear pawing at something on the ground just outside the tent and sniffing on the other side of the flimsy nylon film. He was inches away from me, and I lay motionless in my sleeping bag, too terrified to even breathe.

Fortunately for me, the bear wandered off, but the sound of the bear sniffing at DiCaprio in the theatre brought me back to that frightening moment.

Back to Jim Christie whose mauling in 1909 was similar to the movie portrayal in more than a couple of ways. Christie was terribly injured by his bear attack, and he too managed to shoot the angry beast, killing it before it killed him.

It took him two months to recover enough to return to Dawson from Lansing Post on the Stewart River.

He then had to travel to Victoria for reconstructive surgery on his jaw so that he could eat solid food again. Christie was forever after known as “Grizzly Bear” Christie.

In another scene in the movie, Glass plummets over a cliff astride a horse, and then, to keep from freezing, removes the entrails from the dead animal, and crawls into the body cavity in order to retain his body heat. Something similar actually happened in Alaska to Fannie Quigley, a former Dawson resident who shot a grizzly and skinned it out. When it started to snow and there was not enough light to make it back to camp that night, she wrapped herself in the greasy, blood-stained bear hide to keep warm until morning.

Since “The Revenant” was said to be based upon an actual even from South Dakota in 1822, I searched for more information on the Internet, but found conflicting accounts of what actually happened to Hugh Glass. It would take someone better versed in American history than me to ferret out the truth. I suspect there may not be enough details to resolve the events surrounding Glass’s bear encounter and we will never know what actually happened. So the only thing that really puzzled me in the film was how Di Caprio was able to fire two shots from his flintlock pistol without stopping to reload.

One critic writing for the London Telegraph lamented the fact that the director doesn’t insert enough reality, complaining that we don’t see DiCaprio “use the toilet,” (although two of the other characters were seen urinating realistically enough in the early part of the film). Seeing DiCaprio hunched over doing his business was more realism than I would want to see in this, or any other film. The Revenant captured more than enough realism, and as for historical accuracy? I decided to put that aside for one evening and simply enjoy the outstanding cinematography and the stunning scenery.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing as book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at