All right: for real now, we’ll ditch superheroes for a while.
The Last of the Mohicans, a throwback to old-style epic Hollywood filmmaking but with a new(-ish) gloss & polish. It’s a rare gem that’s both artfully elegant and genuinely exciting, thanks in large part to the lyrical direction of the Michael Mann– frustratingly unpredictable as ever. It’s even got a star turn from the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis, from the period when he was just a very talented & handsome leading man and not a Mind-Blowing Super Actor with a yen for purloined milkshakes.
Let’s not get into the film’s historical inaccuracies. It’s a Hollywood action movie which is loosely based on an old book which itself was only loosed based on then-recent history; we’re quite a few layers away from “reality,” here. Also: I’m hardly the most politically correct guy in the world, but I’ll try to tread respectfully with regards to terms used to describe the story’s native characters.
1) Huron Ambush
- Hawkeye, aka Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo, a British citizen who was raised by the vanishing Mohican tribe after being orphaned at a young age. Hawkeye (in Fenimore Cooper’s other stories he accumulates an impressive number of additional nicknames, including Long Rifle, Deerslayer, Leatherstocking, Pathfinder, etc) is an excellent tracker, and is unparalleled in marksmanship. Played by Daniel Day-Lewis.
- Armed with: A tomahawk/short axe and a Pennsylvania Flintlock Rifle. (Note this is not a musket as previously indicated; as a commenter points out, while most of the other soldiers and militias use various types of muskets, a marksman like Hawkeye favors the Pennsylvania Flintlock. More details here.)
- Chingachgook, Natty’s adoptive Mohican father. Noticeably older but still quite spry. Played by the late Lakota actor and activist Russell Means.
- Armed with: In addition to his rifle, Chingachgook uses (I had to look this up) a gunstock war club, a length of thick wood that roughly resembles a long rifle but is actually a tricky weapon useful for both bludgeoning and stabbing.
- Uncas, Chingachgook’s biological son and Hawkeye’s adopted brother, renowned for his speed. Played by Eric Schweig.
- Armed with: Musket and knife.
- Major Duncan Heyward, the British officer charged with transporting his commander’s daughters to their father’s command post. A competent soldier with an overly narrow sense of right and wrong. Played by Steven Waddington.
- Armed with: Pistol and a stiff upper lip.
- Magua, the film’s villain. Out to kill the entire Munro family over grievances he has with the father, Magua is a ruthless, vicious yet somewhat sympathetic antagonist. Played by the great Wes Studi.
- Armed with: Tomahawk, knife and whatever guns he can gets his hands on.
There’s also a small detachment of British soldiers, about two dozen, under Heyward’s command. Magua leads a similarly sized contingent of Huron raiders. The Munro girls are there too, but they mostly just stand off to the side looking scared. It’s not very empowering.
The Setup: Magua has been hired as a local guide for the Munro girls’ escort, but he’s secretly been plotting to betray them, and is leading the platoon into an ambush. Not long before things get in motion, Team Hawkeye finds the remains of the Huron war party’s camp fires, and decide to keep an eye out for them.
As the redcoats near the ambush point, Magua abruptly turns around and walks quickly to the rear of the marching column. He discreetly draws an axe from his cloak and, approaching a fresh-faced young lad in the back, buries the weapon in his face.
The Fight: Moving so quickly the Brits couldn’t react in time even if they weren’t shocked by the unexpected brutality, Magua immediately seizes the fallen soldier’s rifle and uses it to shoot down another. This acts as the signal for the other Huron raiders hidden in the wilderness to open fire. Most of the shots hit their targets, with several soldiers even tumbling down the steep hillside on the other side of the path. Magua chose the terrain well.
The stunned British quickly cluster together in orderly ranks, and send a volley of fire against the still mostly hidden Hurons. But the bad guys came prepared, and have already set up their cover. When the volley’s over, they charge down into the remainder of the platoon well before they can reload.
The redcoats are fairly well-trained, but in close quarters they’re no match for the natives. Mann treats the audience to an extended sequence of ugly carnage, consisting mostly of British soldiers being steadily felled in increasingly ugly ways.
It’s not pretty. Heyward is the only one who manages to hold his own. That’s mostly due to his being a little bit separated from the main action, but he does take down two bad guys by himself: one with a well-aimed pistol shot, another with some quick fisticuffs after Heyward’s horse is cut down and he’s faced with a lone straggler.
Soon enough the main group of Hurons finish up with the British platoon, and start to charge in on Heyward and the girls, when they’re interrupted by three shots fired from off-screen, each one of which takes down a Huron warrior.
Surprise! It’s the movie’s heroes, here to save the day. Which they actually do with cool efficiency, each of them shown joining the fight separately. Of course, it’s Hawkeye who comes out looking coolest, demonstrating some sweet moves as he cuts through two Hurons in a row just in time to stop Magua from firing on the Munro women.
The two men have a brief gun face-off: Magua quickly swivels his musket to aim at Bumppo, but the hero dodges it, having instinctively begun ducking before Magua even pulled the trigger. Before Hawkeye can return fire, the villain escapes in the excessive smoke, disappearing into the woods like an evil Batman.
Chingachgook gets to finish out the encounter, cutting down the last fleeing Huron (along with Magua, most seem to have run out of fear and confusion) by hurling his war club in an overhead toss into the chump’s back. Nice little stinger of an ending and, in another nice touch, right before it Hawkeye prevents Major Heyward from accidentally shooting Chingachgook in confusion. The movie repeatedly makes Heyward out to be an overly fussy and foolish dweeb, which pays off at the end in a shockingly poignant way.
Mann and his choreographers employ a type of physical combat here that’s believably genuine and unpolished; stiff, but in a good way. Which makes sense, as these warriors are veterans in the art of killing rather than elegant combat. You couldn’t have a period piece about Indians who use a bunch of fancy & stylized ninja moves, that would be completely ridiculous.
This is not the grandest of fights, not even the best one in this movie, but in broad strokes it establishes everything we need to know about all the particulars: the heroes’ smooth competence, Magua’s villainy, the casual brutality of frontier life/combat, and how out of their depth the foreign Europeans are here in this wilderness.
Coming Attractions: The movie lives up to its title.