The Last of the Mohicans (fight 2 of 2)

Don’t mess with the old man.

Or he'll Chingach-get ya.

Or he’ll Chingach-get ya.

2) Magua vs The Mohicans

The Fighters:

  • Chingachgook, the Mohican elder. Played by Russell Means.
    • Armed with: Gunstock war club, same as before.
  • Uncas, the young Mohican brave. Played by Eric Schweig.
    • Armed with: Knife and rifle. Later he grabs a tomahawk.
  • Magua, the spiteful villain. Played by Wes Studi.
    • Armed with: Tomahawk and knife.

Magua is also leading a party of about a dozen Huron subordinates. Hawkeye is on hand but mostly just shoots down the cannon fodder.

The Setup: After having successfully killed Colonel Munro, Magua captures his daughters Cora & Alice (and Duncan too), then takes them back to a Huron village. Hawkeye arrives unexpectedly and tries to sway the local chief to have the girls set free. The sachem reaches a Solomonic compromise: have one daughter burned at the stake as repayment for Magua’s suffering, and have him take the other as his wife to heal his heart. This’d be an awkward arrangement for all involved, one would think.

Hawkeye tries to put himself in Cora’s stead (the sacrifice thing, not the wife thing), but Duncan, knowing that Bumppo stands a better chance than he at getting Cora to safety and rescuing Alice (and also finally accepting that Cora loves Hawkeye, not him), offers himself, which the chief accepts. Team Hawkeye leaves with Cora and, once they get far enough away, Natty use his rifle to perform a mercy killing on the burning Duncan to end his suffering.

This delay ends up staggering the party as they pursue Alice. Between his fleet-footedness and his own desire for Alice’s safety (the pair have been having their own quiet, parallel romance throughout the film), Uncas catches up to Magua at a scenic cliffside path far ahead of his father & brother. This will prove unwise.

See all those bad guys? It's called "wait for backup," smart guy.

See all those bad guys? It’s called “wait for backup,” genius.

 The Fight: Uncas moves so fast he actually gets ahead of Magua’s convoy, and ambushes the lead man by popping out from around a corner he was approaching. He cuts his way through several Huron warriors using a combination of guns and brute force. He finally gets to Magua, who greets the challenge with his own knife and tomahawk at the ready.

They clash, and Uncas makes crippling mistakes early on– he goes up against Magua too close, and isn’t ready for Magua’s craftiness. Whenever the villain blocks Uncas’ axe with his own, his other hand darts in and uses his knife to get several small but damaging slices on the kid’s torso. After this happens two or three times, Magua falls back to higher ground, and Uncas can immediately tell the seriousness of his wounds.

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Whether through remaining recklessness or a Hail Mary attempt to finish things before he loses even more blood, Uncas refuses to let up. He clumsily shoves in closer to Magua, and the two end up tussling around on the surface of a flat rock. Magua again gets the upper hand and takes Uncas’ knife. This happens in wide shot and Mann doesn’t show us what happens immediately after– he cuts back to Hawkeye & Chingachgook in frantic pursuit, and Alice watching from nearby, crying & turning away as she can already see how this ends.

When the action comes back, Uncas is still on the ground, perhaps wounded more, and Magua is standing warily just a few feet away. Interestingly, the villain doesn’t take the opportunity to strike immediately, even though he easily could because Uncas takes a long time to rise unsteadily to his feet, leaving himself wide open. Magua’s giving him the chance to die honorably, on his feet.

Uncas tries to lunge in one last time, but Magua easily intercepts and stabs him in the side. He spins the Mohican around and plunges the knife in deeper, finishing the job.

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Uncas cries out in pain, but there’s no real malice or gloating in Magua’s wordless execution– just cold, calculating efficiency. It’s rough stuff: Uncas was a likeable and noble co-protagonist, and it’s fairly horrifying to watch him die in helpless agony. Magua finally lets the boy go, and pushes him down the cliff.

Too late and too far away to help, Chingachgook is still close enough to see his son die. In a heartbreaking slow-motion shot, we see him scream in grief & protest, but his voice isn’t heard, drowned out instead by the unrelenting music. Russell Means’ haunted face does the job well enough on its own.

As the war party starts to pack back up again, Alice steps away from her captors, looking over the cliff side where her friend had just fallen. The villain confusedly beckons her to come back, and she quietly considers: a quick death alongside her love, or a life with Magua as her husband?

She makes the right call.

Good call.

Magua and his flunkies move on, but soon the good guys catch up with them, this time from the rear. Father & adopted son work quite well together to break through, with Chingachgook acting as the tip of the spear and Hawkeye supporting him from just behind with gunfire. Indeed, the old man is a single-minded engine of destruction, cutting through Hurons while barely slowing down.

Magua welcomes the new challenge, and the old warrior charges right at him. He ducks & rolls under Magua’s opening swing and, in one smooth movement, springs back up and bludgeons his foe in the back with his war club. Magua tries to counter-attack but the Mohican cuts it off prematurely by striking the swinging arm at the elbow. As Magua reels in pain, Chingachgook smashes his other arm, rendering both limbs useless.

Thankfully, Magua doesn't try to continue using the "Black Knight" offense

Thankfully, Magua doesn’t try to continue using the “Monty Python Black Knight” offense

In just a few quick seconds, Magua has been completely shut down, left with nothing to do but stand there in awkward confusion. With victory assured, Chingachgook gives Magua an odd look: not vengeful or satisfied, just disgusted. With one mighty swing, the last of the Mohicans buries the sharp end of his club in Magua’s gut, and leaves him where he falls.

This is a great movie, but during its final stretch it enters another realm entirely. As soon as Duncan Heyward is tied up for his funeral pyre, a beautiful & haunting composition begins on the film’s soundtrack, and doesn’t let up until Magua dies. It often rises and falls in response to the on-screen activity… but it sometimes doesn’t, which in its way is even more affecting. It occasionally drowns out other sounds, most memorably resulting in Chingachgook’s silent scream, but the whole sequence is already virtually dialogue-free, featuring only one spoken word (Hawkeye calling out Uncas’ name after seeing him fall). It plays out almost like a silent movie.

The choreography is effective enough, but there’s relatively little complexity or traditional suspense in it. It’s all rather straightforward: Magua kills Uncas with little difficulty, then Chingachgook kills Magua with even less. But the way everything is handled– the music, the gorgeous backdrop, the various charged emotions that begin with Heyward’s awe-inspiring sacrifice, the ugliness of Uncas’ death and the bittersweet payback for it– combine to create an experience that’s far more than the sum of its parts, let alone the sum of just its punches, kicks and stabs. This is a straight battle that’s legitimately exciting but it’s also something lyrical, almost beautiful. Once again we’re reminded that it’s not just fights being graded here but fight scenes— the cinematic language is often just as important as the choreography. And this movie’s definitely speaking my language.

Grade: A

Coming Attractions: Yo ho ho.

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The Last of the Mohicans (fight 1 of 2)

All right: for real now, we’ll ditch superheroes for a while.

It's not even going to come flying back at him like Mjolnir.

It’s not even going to come flying back at him like Mjolnir.

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

The Fighters:

  • 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.

"For the last time: I will NOT sign your Street Fighter Movie poster!"

“For the last time: I will NOT sign your Street Fighter Movie poster!”

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.

This fellow, for instance, is about to be sold some football tickets at an inflated price

This guy on the ground, for instance, is about to be sold some sporting tickets at an inflated price

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.

A tomahawk will do in a pinch when you don't have a bowling pin.

A tomahawk will do in a pinch when you don’t have a bowling pin.

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.

Grade: B

Coming Attractions: The movie lives up to its title.

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Also, this happens.