Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Last of the Mohicans: Beyond the battlefield

Historical battle scenes in the biggest movies usually go for the huge visuals, and spectacle over everything, which invariably means you have two masses of heavily armed blokes charging into each other's faces and hacking away the arms and legs of the other side until only one is left standing.

But one of the best battle scenes ever put on film breaks all of those rules. It comes a fair way into Michael Mann's 1992 adaption of Last of the Mohicans, when the retreating English army is attacked by Mugua's warriors along a grassy road as they flee a surrendered fort. It's a sudden, bloody affair in the green wilds of a young America.

And it's not a big historically important battle that decides the status of nations. It's just a skirmish in the grand scheme of things. Nobody is changing history or anything like that, and it's something that would only feature as a footnote in any textbooks

But the personal stakes are as high as they get for the participants, with Magua's massive war party out for vengeance, and their English counterparts just fighting to survive. And the staging of the whole thing is superb, with a quiet, strange opening - a lone warrior coming out of nowhere and disappearing again - before suddenly exploding into mass carnage.

And as crazy as things get, you never lose the main characters, who aren't there to win the battle, or even really take sides. Their English comrades have turned on them for daring to suggest that family is more important that country, and they have no love for Magua's people, they just want to survive.

So instead of charging at the enemy, they travel through the battle at a side angle, with the relentless efficiency of the movement of Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas translated across the chaos of the open battlefield. They're just focused on their goal, and taking down any fool that gets in their way.

And the confusion of the opening stages carries through to an undecided outcome - the main characters all abandon the field of battle to row their way to freedom, and hide under a waterfall to make big speeches about surviving. The skirmish ends somewhere far in the background of the main story.

But none of that matters, because the fighting is so personal, and so focused on these few warriors and women, caught up in the havoc of history. That makes it so much bigger than the biggest army maneuvers, and more thrilling than a thousand cavalry charges.

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