‘The Revenant’ ending explained: Why do the Arikara spare Glass?
(Credit: Netflix)

Film Flashback

'The Revenant' ending explained: Why do the Arikara spare Glass?

Aside from its renown as the film that finally won Leonardo di Caprio his overdue Best Actor Oscar, The Revenant is a breathtaking on-screen realisation of the northern United States wilderness of 1823. It follows real-life fur trapper Hugh Glass’ battle for survival in one of the harshest natural environments on earth.

As well as overcoming bears, bison, fever and freezing terrain enveloped in snow, Glass has to contend with Fitzgerald, a rogue trapper among his own travelling party who murders his son. And the party as a whole must do battle with the Arikara, an indigenous tribe in the region searching for their chief’s missing daughter.

When, after a mauling at the hands of a mother bear, Glass is half-buried alive and left for dead, we assume he is a goner. Yet he manages to raise himself from his grave and evade hostile Arikara fighters, before running into Pawnee tribesman Hikuc, who feeds him and saves him from succumbing to fever by building a sweat lodge.

There, the delirious Glass has a vision of meeting his dead son in a dilapidated church. He hugs him deeply, and begins to come to terms with his loss. This scene is among the several spiritual and metaphorical representations of death we see after Glass is left in a shallow grave.

We later see him disembowelling Hikuc’s dead horse in order to shelter from a snowstorm inside its carcass. This act can be read as a metaphor for humankind’s subservience to the natural world, in life as in death. We are born from the bosom of mother nature, to which we return when we die.

And, in the film’s final moments, Glass follows a vision of his dead Pawnee wife into the uninhabitable snow-covered Black Hills mountains. There is no possibility of his survival in such a place.

But was he already dead?

We can be certain that Glass is giving his life up to the natural world at the end of the movie. But has he, in fact, already died? Everything that happens following the scene of his burial could be viewed in mystical terms, as a form of transition to the afterlife.

The encounter with the spiritual Hikuc, who guides him not only in physical but in metaphysical terms, telling him to leave vengeance upon Fitzgerald “in the Creator’s hands”. The church vision with his dead son, and the fact that his wounds from the bear attack subsequently heal. And the image of his wife leading him to certain death.

Glass’ journey in the second half of the film invokes its title, which refers to someone who has returned from the dead. The first recorded use of the word was in 1823, the very year in which the movie is set.

It leads us to assume that at the very least Glass has cheated death in physical terms, and remains alive in the material world against all odds despite being assumed dead by his fellow trappers. Otherwise, he is a ghost, remaining in the world only in spiritual terms.

Two plot points that suggest Glass is still very much alive until the end of the film are his relationship to the Arikara tribe, and his fight with Fitzgerald at the movie’s climax. After Glass pushes his enemy into the Missouri river, the Arikara kill Fitzgerald but spare Glass himself.

Why do the Arikara spare Glass?

Several scenes prior to this climactic moment, Glass goes into a camp of French Canadian hunters and finds the Arikara tribal chief’s daughter Powaqa being raped. He saves her, and after she takes her revenge she escapes the camp.

By the time they come across Glass and Fitzgerald again, the Arikara are aware of the role Glass played in saving their chief’s daughter. They return the favour by sparing his life and killing his son’s murder. By leaving vengeance to “the Creator” as Hikuc advised, Glass has received a form of karmic retribution.

Still, his story remains tragic in the final analysis. His son may have been avenged, but he appears mortally wounded not only by the bear attack earlier in the film but by the loss of his family. In a sense, his travails through the wilderness seem to be a reflection of his lost mental state.