An Ode to the Finale of The Last of the Mohicans
A convulsive cycle of love, sacrifice, and revenge marches to an inevitable conclusion in the final ten minutes of Michael Mann's 1992 film, The Last of the Mohicans. Eloquent visual storytelling, austere performances, majestic settings and a soul-stirring score imbue this end sequence with ineffable beauty and power. If you've never seen the film, Mann's “Definitive Cut” is available to stream. If you just want to brush up on the closing sequence I'm discussing, it begins around the one hour and thirty-eight minute mark, although I'd recommend starting about seven minutes earlier; the Huron Sachem scene provides context for what follows: a masterpiece of minimalism and grandeur which could very nearly stand alone as a self-contained piece unto itself.
From the moment Major Duncan Heyward trades his life for Cora’s, to the film's final shot, few words are spoken. The drama plays out instead, through decisive action, unspoken understanding, and a sense of inevitability against the scale of the natural order. The physicality and energy of the performances can be striking; Chingachgook’s raw, brutal charge on Magua is an exhilarating and cathartic piece of action, especially following the anguish twisting the old warrior's face just moments prior, as he watched his son being killed. Chingachgook’s sudden roll beneath Magua’s tomahawk swing; the bitterly casual way several well-placed strikes of the old man's war club incapacitate his foe; that venomous, withering look he holds on Magua, forcing him to wait in anticipation of the fatal blow. The film lingers on moments like these – when so much passes unspoken between characters – by look and by motion. Consider Chingachgook and Uncas, crouching in the bushes, as Alice Munro is dragged away, captive. Uncas touches his father's shoulder. Chingachgook meets his eye and immediately understands: Uncas loves Alice, and must pursue Magua. Does Chingachgook realize, even then, that his son is likely going to his death? Perhaps, for there is a quality of inevitability to the proceedings. Uncas can no more abandon Alice than Cora can, and Hawkeye can no more abandon Chingachgook than Chingachgook can leave Uncas. The stage has been set, the decisions made, and all players have accepted their roles. All that remains is for the repercussions to unfold.
Yet for all this operatic tragedy, there is no trace of melodrama to be found in the performances. Consider Eric Schweig as Uncas: stoically realizing Magua outmatches him and he will fail to rescue Alice, but he must stand and fight regardless. Or, if you will, consider the stunning simplicity of Jodhi May’s Alice, as she moves to the cliffside, numbed by grief, and quietly makes the decision to leap to her death. May’s restrained performance in that moment is commensurate with the straightforward visual tone throughout the entire sequence. The violence, while brutal, is regarded with certain frankness. Neither gratuitously romantic, nor dramatically grotesque, it just is. Beneath the surface of this austerity, of course, runs a tidal wave of passion, and both the disciplined performances and camera work serve as a counter-balance to the majesty of the film’s setting and score. The human drama is placed in perspective against a backdrop of magnificent (and disinterested) natural splendor. The Hurons, picking their way along a Cliffside, look tiny compared to the untamed mountain range, four hundred-foot waterfall, and precipitous drop. Fascinatingly, the interplay of minimalism and grandeur introduces a quality of detachment to the events onscreen. We observe Magua’s heartlessness, Chingachgook’s fury, Hawkeye’s loyalty, and Uncas’ courage, as if from a distance. This remove contributes to the sense that everything occurring has been predetermined by the nature of humanity, and the dominion of the natural order.
Of course, we can hardly fail to factor in the film’s score, among the most unforgettable and moving in cinema history. It's not outlandish to imagine that, with a different score, the film would be nowhere near as effective. As a matter of fact, Mann initially asked composer Trevor Jones for an electronic score, before changing his mind during editing. Mann’s sudden, last-minute request for an orchestral score, as well as continuous re-cutting of the film, required the assistance of a second composer, Randy Edelman, and yielded final recordings which were later viewed as rather flawed. Luckily, this marries perfectly with the wildness of the setting, and the rough-hewn authenticity of the footage. The oddly Gaelic theme (borrowed from Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean) is hardly an obvious choice to underscore this sequence, yet this incongruity actually functions in service to the sense of detachment created by the contrast of restraint and spectacle. The score, like the land itself, exists independently from the action. That a hodgepodge score, poorly-recorded and assembled at the last-minute from the distinct work of two composers could, nevertheless, stand among the great cinematic scores, speaks to the accidents and happenstance that often separate great from good when it comes to art. As an example, let us examine the evolution of the film's pitch-perfect final scene, in which Chingachgook offers a prayer for Uncas, some of the first words spoken aloud in nearly ten minutes. In the screenplay, this scene is dialogue-heavy. Hawkeye and Cora discuss whether she'll return to England, agree to marry, and discuss travel plans for winter and spring. In the theatrical cut, Chingachgook muses, prophetically, on the future of the frontier (seeming to stop just short of predicting Wal-Mart by name). In Mann's definitive cut, however, he speaks only the prayer:
“Great Spirit, and the maker of all life, a warrior goes to you swift and straight as an arrow shot into the sun. Welcome him, and let him take his place at the council fire of my people. He is Uncas, my son. Bid them patience and ask death for speed, for they are all there but one. I, Chingachgook, last of the Mohicans.” Hawkeye and Cora embrace, and the three gaze silently out over the frontier, each equally aware of the transience of life and, ultimately, even land. The music swells, and the sun goes down. That pretty much says it all.
(Sometimes) a theatrical director/actor/producer and writer, and (mostly) a bartender and New Beaconite often found in semi-aimless wander.