The End of Death and Vengeance

“I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already.” That’s what Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, who rightly won an Academy Award for his performance) says to Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) before he pursues his vengeance against John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) for killing his son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). The stories about the historical Hugh Glass are almost entirely in the realm of legend. Michael Punke’s book takes the bones of those legends and constructs a fictional narrative around them. Glass was an explorer and trapper who was born around 1783 and probably died in 1833. The facts seem to be that he was mauled by a grizzly bear on an expedition and badly wounded. Fitzgerald and a younger man named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter in the movie) stayed behind the rest of the expedition, to wait for Glass’s death, and then to bury him. He survived and traveled hundreds of miles to seek vengeance for being left alive.

In the book, Fitzgerald steals Glass’s rifle, and Bridger takes his knife, leaving him without any obvious means to survive and defend himself. In the movie (directed by Alejandro Iñárritu whose Bardo: False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths was one of my favorite films of last year),however, presumably to make his quest for vengeance more understandable and sympathetic, Fitzgerald kills Glass’s son, who is half Pawnee. Fitzgerald is in the middle of suffocating Glass (mercy from Fitzgerald’s perspective, murder from Hawk’s) when Hawk starts yelling for Bridger, and Fitzgerald kills him. While this doesn’t seem to bear any relationship to facts known to history, it certainly raises the stakes of the revenge tale. By all accounts, Glass seemed to have some sort of moral compass, so trying to kill Fitzgerald simply because he stole his rifle doesn’t quite seem to justify the lengths to which Glass goes.

Because that’s what drives Glass and keeps him alive: a thirst for vengeance. And that’s how he manages to survive until he reaches Fort Kiowa, from where he and Captain Henry leave to pursue Fitzgerald. But, in fact, vengeance isn’t the only thing that keeps him alive. In the book, he has help from three other Pawnee men who seem him giving an old woman a traditional funeral. In the movie, it is a Pawnee man whose own family was murdered. He tells Glass before he leaves him on his own, “Vengeance belongs to the Creator.”

In the book, Glass finds that Fitzgerald has joined the army and so is subject to a military trial on the charge of theft. Glass shoots him in the shoulder, but his desire for revenge is not satisfied. He is convinced by Kiowa (who has named the fort after himself or his family) to let it be, and not to do something that will mean further imprisonment or death. In the movie, though, the death of his son means that he cannot let it go. Fitzgerald flees the fort when he finds out that Glass is alive and there. Henry tells Glass that he cannot let him go back out there (into the wilderness, in the middle of winter), not again. And Glass says, “No. I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already.” So they pursue Fitzgerald into the snow and trees.

When Glass finally catches up to Fitzgerald, they fight, with both men being injured. Glass is about to kill Fitzgerald when he stops, and says essentially what the Pawnee survivor had told him earlier: “Vengeance belongs to God.” This vengeance comes quickly, as a group of Arikara warriors—the settlers’ primary enemies at this time—are crossing the river at that moment. This ties in to one of the film’s (invented) sub-plots: an Arikara chief searching for his kidnapped daughter, whom Glass saves from French trappers.

I found the narrative in the film more convincing than the book as a story, even if much of the story diverges from the known facts—not to mention the spectacular cinematography (which also won the Academy Award that year). Iñárritu’s dream sequences are great, especially the one with the ruins of the church, which was constructed out of foam, though it appears as real as the surroundings from which it arises (or to which it is returning).

Besides the natural beauty and terror of the landscape, the visual images lend themselves to an excellent Lent and Easter meditation. “I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already” is the Christian’s entire perspective. It fits well especially with the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Lutheran Service Book, Series A), which is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. When the Jewish leaders want to kill Lazarus, because his raising is causing people to believe in Jesus, Bede says, “As if Jesus could not restore to life one who had been killed when he had been able to restore to life one who had died!” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, IVb, 49) Lazarus is not afraid to die anymore. He did it once. And Jesus, of course, is preeminent: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). And, Paul says, this death is the same death into which we are baptized (6:3-4). Therefore, “you have died, and your (true) life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4).

I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already. And having died already with Christ, buried with him, as Glass is buried by Fitzgerald, we learn to think differently about vengeance and forgiveness as well. Our vengeance can never make right what has gone wrong. “An eye for an eye” does not restore the first eye taken, and “a life for a life” cannot raise the dead. But the end of death and vengeance is coming, in the first one who died and will never die again. Hugh Glass, in the end, leaves vengeance to God, who alone can make things right, and who alone can make life out of death. So Lent teaches us, as we are prepared joyfully to celebrate the paschal feast: I am not afraid to die anymore. I’ve done it once already.