A few months ago, in the wake of the annual summer superhero blockbuster movie overload extravaganza, I wrote a piece that expanded on the ideas put forth by Nerdwriter1 as to why Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice League, Here It Comes! Look Out, Marvel; DC’s in the Game, Bitches! was a movie with a lot a noise, but little substance. Today and for the future, I will be expanding on the positive part of this to discuss some more movie scenes done right. Just as I delved deeper into the scene of Django exacting literal and metaphorical revenge on slavers in 2012’s Django Unchained in that post, in this post I am looking at another scene that does so much at summarizing the plot, showing us character depth and development, providing some great movie moments (and music), and direction to bring it all together in a compelling sequence that has our every sense attuned to the screen in anticipation of what happens next while reveling in what just did.
The sequence of the day for this post is taken from the climax of the 1992 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans. This story has been translated to film before, but never so beautifully. Apparently the novel is a rough read, so making the most of its source material to tell an entertaining story that is a mixture of frontier adventure, romance, war, and set among a real period of American history that is not frequently featured on film is quite the achievement. The costumes and weapons are period accurate, and the acting is fantastic; this is one of the chosen few films that Daniel Day-Lewis has chosen to star in, and features the breakout performance of Madeline Stowe’s career, and another solid notch in the belt of Wes Studi. In spite of all this, the real star of this rendition is the magnificence of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the sweeping score that melds perfectly with the cinematography. However, we cannot discount the directing talent of Michael Mann, who takes a step out of his typical contemporary urban action/thriller/mystery setting to run through the woods and waterfalls of 1757 New York in the midst of the French and Indian War.
If you have not yet seen the film, I highly recommend it. Furthermore, I highly recommend watching it if you have not already before you read on, for the scene I am looking at today is from the end of the film, and you wouldn’t want to spoil it for yourself would you? Besides, it will save me a lot of strife from having to recap the film if you are already familiar with it. With that said, let’s get into it.
This sequence is the climactic chase given by protagonists Hawkeye, Chingachgook, Uncas, and Cora after Magua and his Huron tribesman who have Cora’s sister and Uncas’ love interest, Alice, in their possession. Hawkeye and his adoptive father Chingachgook chase after the Huron war party, while his adoptive brother Uncas runs ahead and confronts the Huron head on along the precarious promontory.
Just to be clear, Ennio Morricone, excellent as he is at film composition, did not write this score. Mostly Trevor Jones did with some help from Randy Edelman. Now that that’s been established, let’s look at what’s going on here.
Uncas jumps out at the exact moment the front man of the Huron war party comes to his hiding place and takes the man down. He comes out blazing through the first warriors in a scene familiar to some of Michael Mann’s other work. The reminiscence ends there though, because they could reload much quicker in Heat. Uncas takes one shot and sticks and stones, or rather rifle butts and tomahawks his way through the next few until he meets Magua. They fight and Magua meets Uncas’ every strike with a parry, then deals the first cut on Uncas. This shows Magua’s fighting prowess that we’ve seen throughout the film is no joke. He can more than hold his own against the young Mohican, despite all that we’ve seen from Uncas up to this point too. And boy are there stakes to this contest! Both men want Alice, but where Magua desires her as a pretty piece of vengeance against her colonel father (for whom Magua has already fulfilled one promise to “eat his heart”), Uncas is in love with her and is willing to do anything to save her. This is all shown in his gaze at Alice before he pushes Magua back and leaps up to continue their fight. We can also see that Alice feels the same concern for Uncas, as she tries to go to him before being promptly pushed back behind the Huron warriors as they watch the duel their leader is engaged in. The hints at their blossoming love that was hidden in plain sight behind the more apparent romance between Hawkeye and Cora are confirmed in these moments. Her breathe of relief to see Uncas still standing and looking at her after being wounded is palpable, and it only takes a second for us to feel her juxtaposed comfort and panic; he is still alive, but in danger, and soon he is knocked down again. Alice feels helpless, and turns away; unable to bear watching him die. Perhaps he will be saved by his father and brother who we get a quick cut of running along the precipitous path the Huron have traversed before being stalled by Uncas. The music swells as Uncas stands again, and Alice straightens up, feeling her hero’s newfound strength as a glimmer of hope comes across her face.
Uncas, of course, is bested by Magua, who catches his next strike and stabs him with his other hand. Chingachgook rounds the bend just in time to see his son’s throat slit before Magua tosses him unceremoniously down the cliff face. The slow motion silent scream is a moment done right, that combined with the rest of the scene displays the full emotion of it exceptionally. We see this again not two minutes later, but I’ll get to that.
Hawkeye also screams out in torment as his brother falls. He continues to follow behind his father in pursuit of the Huron. The vigor that Uncas had in his drive to save Alice is now within the two of them, especially Chingachgook, only this time the drive is vengeance.
But first, we get to take in the best part of this sequence, where Alice finds her courage and drifts away from the Huron party toward the precipice near where Uncas just fell. The rotating camera, the tears in her eyes, oh man, this is what we’re here for! She locks eyes with Magua who is still stonefaced, and she continues to back up to the edge of the cliff. The moment where she slowly looks down to where Uncas landed and the water droplets fall from the rocks above is the best in this film, and I think the best moment Mann has ever filmed. It captures the peak emotion of this scene, and Mann draws out her decision to jump and join her love in death for a full minute. We all know what she is going to do when she starts to step toward to mountainside, but Mann milks so perfectly with shots between Alice and Magua trying to coax her back,. When she turns back to Magua after gazing below, she has clearly made up her mind, and her eyes seem to ask, “What are you going to do? What can you do?” She is finally the master of her own destiny, for the first time in her life, just in time for the last moment of it. Magua lowering his knife and beckoning her back with his hand are empty calls for her. She turns and steps off, freeing herself of her captivity once and for all. She was held prisoner by her father and English customs her whole life, until she met Uncas and the Mohicans, then she was held prisoner by Magua and his Huron clan, but it her final act, she is free. Nothing tugs at the heartstrings like tragic love. I love too that we see her “swimming” through the air with her arms and legs. She is not falling helplessly like she would if she were thrown. Perhaps she is even working her way toward Uncas with her last effort.
Cora’s shock stops her in her tracks. Magua’s pragmatic expression and turn away now that his prisoner is gone is the foil to Cora’s grief, which is briefly seen and heard, similarly to how Chingachgook reacted to Uncas’ death.
Speaking of which, here he comes, gaining on the Huron party, with Hawkeye close beyond. We’re about to see the skill of the Mohicans at its most furious. The last warrior of the Huron party notices the two men closing fast and raises his rifle, only to be shown how Hawkeye got his name. Hawkeye shows off his finesse with a firearm as the chase goes on, especially when he fires two single-shot rifles at once while running. Definitely a Mann moment, right there, but he earns it by bringing home the emotional punch with every shot fired and ax swung. For as handy as Hawkeye is, the highlight hero of this chase is his father, who rolls up on Magua likes it’s nobody’s business. With the help of his son holding off the rest of the Huron warriors with an unloaded gun (shh, don’t tell the Huron he’s already fired that rifle), Chingachgook makes the most out of his single combat with Magua. Where Magua always had the upper hand on his son, Chingachgook never lets Magua get a swing at him, and absolutely wrecks the man we’ve seen kick some serious ass up to this point, thereby showing that Chingachgook didn’t outlive his brethren by mistake.
This has remained one of my favorite films since I first saw it. It is the most unique departure from his standard that Michael Mann has yet made, and personally it is my favorite from him (although Heat‘s pretty damn good!) The music is easily one of the greatest film scores and fits so well in every scene in the film, but most appropriately here in this awesome ending sequence. The final scenes of the film are sad, but realistic with Chingachgook mourning the loss of his line and declaring himself the eponymous last of the Mohicans, before going on to say that someday even the likes of people like his adoptive son and his family to come will be gone. “But once, we were here.”
Thanks for reading and watching! Seeing as there are no shortages of excellent movie scenes to highlight the effectiveness and entertainment of, I have a lot to choose from. So much so, that I think this will be a recurring segment of my writing. If you ever have any questions or feedback, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Run back here next week for the quarterly recap of my past posts in the next State of the Season.
Keep on rolling,