I’ve wanted to highlight this section of film for some time. Just never got around to it…as usual. But credit two people, longtime reader Cindy and her comment to last month’s post, and one of my favorite authors, Adrian McKinty with his post from awhile back, for getting me off the snide. The 2016 blog post, Top 10 Movies That Are Better Than The Book, gave the initial credence for this piece. The Northern Irishman now living in Melbourne, Australia got straight to the point in his customary manner:
“There are a couple of lists like this floating around the internet but they’re all written by kids who have no idea what they’re talking about because they haven’t A) seen any films or B) read any books. Also you have to scroll through many screens to get their ridiculously uninformed opinions, whereas to get my ridiculously overinformed opinions you need only look below. You can pretty much stop reading any of those other lists at the point where they claim that Clueless is better than Pride and Prejudice. Ahem. Ok my top 10 or 11 if you want to be technical about it.”
Of course, it’s his number one pick that stirred this as Mr. McKinty made a concise, but a straight-to-the-point case for:
“1. Last of the Mohicans. This book is so bad that Mark Twain made hay out of mocking it 150 years ago and it has not aged particularly well since then. The Michael Mann film however, is a classic especially that 8 minute long – almost silent – final sequence.”
And it’s that monumental excerpt, as the author noted, almost entirely wordless, that culminates the film. Famously, the filmmaker had acquired the rights to Philip Dunne’s 1936 screenplay of the then movie, rather than the problematic novel1. Director Michael Mann producing another of his stellar action sequences that mean so much more than the bodies being strewn about. This then my reasons I admire the sequence — a superb set of emotional scenes chained together — that climaxes this film so very well.
Bringing all the principals that have carried the tale to this dramatic close. The three frontiersmen traveling west to find a new home: Chingachgook, the last chief of the Mohican tribe; his son, Uncas, and an adopted brother, a white man named Nathaniel Poe2, aka “Nathaniel Hawkeye.” The British Colonel Munro’s children, Cora and Alice, and the Army Major and a family friend in love with Cora, Duncan Heyward, assigned to escort them to their father’s fort during the French and Indian War of 1757.
Plus, the instigator that has tied them together in a fight for their lives…Magua.
Magua, the clear villain of the film and the most formidable warrior throughout. In fact, he’s the most dynamic and compelling character of the entire production. Certainly, the most skilled at different languages and cultures that come clashing together in the tale. A bitter brew of Huron, Mohawk, French and English. The last what places him on the road to vengeance since he holds Colonel Munro responsible in the death of his children, loss of his wife to another, and care of his eventual enslavement by the allied Mohawk.
He has the clearest incentive, as least by 16th century standards, for unleashing the bloodshed he seeks in this muscular retelling and re-envisioning of Cooper’s story3.
Wouldn’t be a worthy Michael Mann sequence to discuss without something to say musically. Especially since little dialogue exists in this section of the film. The music by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman4 has to deliver something dramatic to the ears while the director does similarly with actors via action. Titled here as Promontory, it is the scene’s dulcet accompaniment, composed by Jones, and extensively quoting Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean‘s most famous work, “The Gael” from his 1990 album The Search.
The instrumental track keys the start and end of the sequence to a haunting extent.
Mann the quintessential filmmaker, if for nothing more than the vivid realism he wishes to project onto the screen and viewer’s imaginations. As usual, researching details of the story to a high degree (let’s not speak to the mystical investigation he no doubt did for his adaptation of F. Paul Wilson novel of the same name, The Keep, shall we?), gathers his cast and trains them exhaustively to bring off stunts5 and conflicts few others can replicate. Photographing them to a stunning resolution, thematically, as done here.
The entirety of the story has led to this. Magua about to accomplish his full vengeance upon the family Munro in his distant Huron encampment. Having ambushed and killed his arch-enemy, after the fall of Fort William Henry, he presents the British Colonel’s captured daughters and Duncan Heyward to his chief, in hopes of gaining recognition as a war leader. Only to again be interrupted and stymied by Hawkeye, who has come to plead for the lives of the prisoners, with Chingagook and Uncas nearby.
The appeals by both take unexpected turns as the sachem rules that Heyward is to be returned to the British, with Alice given to Magua to soothe the wrong done him; but Cora sacrificed by fire to settle the debt. Hawkeye asks Heyward, translating between Hawkeye and the elder, to take his life in Cora’s stead. In a final gesture of affection and redemption, Heyward arranges to be executed in her place, though. The betrayed Magua storming off with his band, Alice in tow, and Cora escaping with Hawkeye.
The remainder of the sequence will lead to a bloody and emotional resolution as all of the principals will lose something dear to them6.
And who empowered these colonials to pass judgement on England’s policies, and to come and go without so much as a “by your leave”?
As irksome as Heyward has been throughout upholding British rule amongst the colonials and pressing for Cora’s hand, his last noble act is to frustrate the man who’s outwitted him for the duration, Magua, by keeping his enemy’s oldest from the flame. Knowing Cora loves Hawkeye, and his attempts are for not, Heyward’s offer also a selfish one. Only the Le Longue Carabine has any chance of delivering Cora to safety, and the long range marksmanship to end his suffering from the slow, gruesome death before him.
Which brings us to the quietest pair on both sides of the cultural divide represented in the story. As mentioned, Uncas, who’s supposed to be the “last of the Mohicans” by Chingagook’s thinking to this point, “…is the unspoken spirit of this work”. “Emblematic of the indigenous people’s fate…” Here separating from his father’s side to go and rescue whom he loves, Alice, from her captor. The future consort, Magua. Getting out front of the band along the cliff side as they head away from the Huron camp.
The director will visually telegraph Uncas fate with the first warrior he cuts down and forces him off the cliff.
Ambushing, then taking out the lead warriors one by one, by rifle blows, shot, and tomahawk, Uncas sets his sights on Magua in that way we’ve come to expect from Michael Mann. Quick, brutal, and authentic methods of combat using period weaponry in close-quarter action. Credit the filmmaker for again defying Hollywood convention in making such a fight to the death overly stylized when these two begin to trade with edged weapons. Or that Uncas’ tomahawk duel stands a chance against Magua’s skilled use of both knife and ax.
It’s bloody and one-sided, and all to the dismay of Alice witnessing it. The young British maiden given modest screen time in this story version, Jodhi May would allude her best scenes only made it to the cutting room floor. Still, Mann made sure her’s a fitful dramatic arc. Mostly portrayed as the epitome of “the weak sister” for Cora to protect, she’ll rise to the occasion during the siege of the fort earlier. Her unconsummated feelings toward Uncas laid bare without a word, simply by glance with he who’s vanquished him.
Proof that the filmmaker’s “show, don’t tell” accomplished more visually than Cooper ever could describe on paper with her final act to join Uncas at the bottom of the cliff as the tide in Jones’ music is heard to lament.
Must be said, the longtime collaborator, Dante Spinotti, framed and minimally lit the sequence to an extraordinary level. Composing characters, as he had throughout, against the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (standing in for the Adirondacks region of the period). The imposing splendor of the scenery highlighting the heroic tragedy with epic beauty. Painstakingly in between the rugged backdrop and emotional motivations, which set off to deliver this climatic sequence for Michael Mann only too well.
The fluid camera-work also noted an interesting sideline — that after rescuing Cora, Hawkeye’s role in the final minutes of the film becomes one of support to his adopted father, Chingagook, as he futilely races to save his kin.
Indicative of the telling anguish of those witnessing the carnage playing forth, it’s shown via close-up on the principals’ faces. Cinematically, Spinotti and Mann made sure every character loses something cherished in the sequence — even if it’s simply their own life. Not cheaply, either. With certainty, they made the casualty side of the French and Indian War skirmish well-earned with masterful visual storytelling, judging by the audience’s reaction to it all. None more so than Chingagook’s counter to Magua’s last deed in his cruel retribution.
It’s a Hollywood cliché for the movie’s hero to defeat the villain, even the author had Hawkeye pull that one off in his novel. Thankfully, Mann’s keyed off of George B. Seitz’s 1936 film, instead. Yet, rather than Uncas’ father drowning Magua, his merciless demise administered shrewdly and with the filmmaker’s hallmark for ruthless realism. By Chingagook’s gunstock war club he’s used for the whole of the movie. Deftly negating the villain’s tomahawk and knife prowess by range and leverage for a satisfyingly swift retaliation.
Typical of Michael Mann, it is that final peak of violent action, with its precise blows that disarm with hot-blooded purpose, which is truly emblematic for one of the greatest cinematic climaxes ever put on film.
- James Fenimore Cooper’s “classic” novel remains a point of contention for not only academics (recommended read, Jane Hill’s Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohican’s Radicalizing Cooper) as well to the native people of the Americas (recommended read, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz). ↩
- Mann dropping the “Natty Bumppo” moniker from Cooper’s protagonist from his pentalogy of novels known as the Leatherstocking Tales. ↩
- The clip used for this examination will be from Michael Mann’s initial 112-minute theatrical release, not the 117-minute “expanded edition” for its U.S. DVD release (November 23, 1999), or the 114-minute October 5, 2010 U.S. Blu-ray release, billed as the “Director’s Definitive Cut.” You can tell by Magua’s body wound shown, refer to Movie-Censorship.com’s comparison of film versions. ↩
- Jones and Edelman did not work together on the score and why their names on the credits are separate from one another. The latter came on board due to creative differences between Trevor Jones and Michael Mann, which forced the former off the project. The subsequent soundtrack album reflects this as the first half is Jones’ score followed by Edelman’s and ending with Clannad’s song. ↩
- “Michael Mann wouldn’t allow the actors to use stand-ins.” ~ IMDB ↩
- The most distinctive differences between source novel and Mann’s reinterpretation lay with who lives and dies. Colonel Munro and Major Heyward both survive in the novel. Alice dies at the end of the movie, as does her rescuer Uncas (the only consistent demise in both), but Cora is stabbed by a warrior and Magua shot by Hawkeye at the end in Cooper’s tale. ↩