If there was a singular cinematic image among the Oscar contenders this year, it was probably the vicious bear attack in the movie “The Revenant,” where Leonardo DiCaprio gets mauled by a grizzly and is left for dead.
The movie is based on Michael Punke’s 2002 book of the same name, which tells the story of Hugh Glass and his fateful adventures in the 1820s. Glass was a former pirate and trapper who survived unimaginable odds to achieve retribution after he was abandoned by fellow trappers following the bear attack. He managed to crawl nearly 200 miles to safety across the rugged frontier of what is now northwestern South Dakota.
But before the movie, before Punke’s book, local author Bruce Bradley wrote “Hugh Glass,” also based on the frontiersman and the subject of the new movie, which on Sunday won an Oscar for DiCaprio.
Much of why Bradley, who tends bar at the National Hotel, wrote the book can be attributed to his eventful life. He grew up in an unfinished house in Alaska with no running water or TV. Wearing his standard black leather vest and Western-style tie, he said growing up in Alaska, where temperatures sometimes dropped to 60 degrees below zero, he spent most of his youth reading books.
“My folks were gypsies,” Bradley said. “They were in and out of the restaurant business and we moved around.”
When Bradley was very young, his family owned a hotel next door to a Grass Valley bordello called Bessie Gerald’s Sporting House, which had 12 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms.
The family’s hotel burned down. “So we had a family discussion. We were either going to go to Costa Rica to grow bananas or Alaska. I was either going to be Tarzan or Nanook of the North.”
Eventually, Bradley and his family ended up in Napa Valley. The author spent most of his time there in the wine-making business, while trying to write books.
Both the “Hugh Glass” book and the movie are described as true stories. Key scenes in both are the bear attack and the aftermath, Glass’ treacherous effort to reach Fort Henry. Bradley became interested in the story of Hugh Glass after reading one of many books about the legendary frontiersman, entitled “Lord Grizzly” by Frederick Manfred.
But when the movie version of the adventure came out, Bradley was disappointed.
“They got his name right,” he said, referring to Glass. “They got the bear attack down right. Everything else about the movie got it historically wrong.”
“In August of 1823, Glass was with a group of 10 trappers. They were all in panic to get to Fort Henry up on the Yellowstone River,” Bradley says. “All the Indians in that area had declared war on all the whites.” At one point in the story, Glass is attacked by a huge bear. After the attack, Glass managed to kill the grizzly. Thinking Glass was nearly dead, his fellow trappers left him and took his tomahawk and rifle. But Glass survived.
Driven by revenge for being left behind, Glass sets out crawling inch by inch across more than 200 miles of uncharted Western frontier, encountering predators, Indians, the threat of starvation and the agony of his horrific wounds. It took him until New Years Eve from October to walk to Fort Henry, Bradley said.
When he got to Fort Henry, one of the trappers who left him for dead felt so guilty that he thought Glass was a ghost who came to haunt him.
“The Revenant” means ghost,” Bradley said. “That’s where the name of the movie comes from. But they never explain that in the film.”
“The movie said Glass had a half-breed son,” Bradley continued. “He didn’t have a half-breed son. The movie also said trapper (John Fitzgerald) killed his son.”
“They made Fitzgerald out to be a murderer. He wasn’t a murderer,” he said.
Fond memories of his early years living in Grass Valley drew Bradley back to the area in 2006. He moved to Nevada City, where he has been bar tending and writing. He published another book, “Jaguar” in 2006, which takes place mostly in Grass Valley in 1858, beginning with Glass’s death in 1833.
For more about Bradley and his books, visit www.moosegantz.com.