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In 1823 a quasi-military group of hunters and trappers are hunting for pelts in the unsettled wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase under the command of Captain Andrew Henry. Hostility from a Native American tribe, the Arikara, leads to an ambush of the hunting party. Only about one-third of the hunters manage to escape on one of their rafts, salvaging as much as they can, while still under fire from the attacking Arikara.
The escaping hunting party is led by Henry, who fears they are still being pursued by the Arikara. The party is further slowed down when Hugh Glass, one of the experienced hunters, stumbles across a mother grizzly bear and her cubs, while he is separated from the rest of the party. He is mauled and seriously wounded by the enraged grizzly protecting her cubs. Although Glass eventually shoots the bear and kills it with his Bowie knife, he nearly dies himself, and the hunting party can only provide rudimentary medical care. The party takes the wounded Glass with them, but because he is on a makeshift stretcher, he slows their march. One of the members, John Fitzgerald, suggests killing him so they can move faster. Henry initially tries to kill Glass himself but is unable to shoot him even though Glass is so wounded that he cannot even speak or move. Instead, Henry offers payment for two men to stay behind with Glass. When two boys (Jim Bridger and Glass' son Hawk) volunteer, Fitzgerald states that the boys and Glass will likely be killed—leading the Captain to increase the reward for a third man to stay. Once both Bridger and Hawk offer their share to whoever helps them, Fitzgerald himself volunteers. Henry makes Fitzgerald promise he will stay with Glass until he dies and give him a proper burial. Once separated from the main hunting party and alone with Glass, Fitzgerald tries to smother Glass, only to have Hawk stumble upon this murder attempt. A struggle ensues and Fitzgerald kills Hawk. When Bridger returns, Fitzgerald claims not to know where Hawk is and concocts a story that he saw Arikara down by the river which required them to abandon Glass.