' Cinema Romantico: Why the Tale of Alice Munro Is A Metaphor For Life

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why the Tale of Alice Munro Is A Metaphor For Life

This was originally the prologue to a 36 page essay/diary I gave to a few people in 2006 after my journey to Mohicanland (which is to say the state of North Carolina wherein "Last of the Mohicans" was filmed) entitled, uh, One Man's Journey to Mohicanland. I long yearned to write about why Alice Munro's plight contained in said film was a perfect metaphor for all of life and in the wake of my journey finally did so. And today I offer it up to all. I hope you enjoy it.

My favorite character of all time in any movie ever made is undoubtedly Alice Munro (played by Jodhi May) of my all time favorite movie, "Last of the Mohicans". She is my favorite character because I find her storyline during the course of the movie to be - simply stated - a summation of the entire human existence. The obvious question would, of course, be how a character who appears onscreen for no more than about fifteen minutes make such a sizable statement regarding the human condition. Well, since you asked......

A little background before we start - Alice is the younger sister of Cora Munro, our headstrong heroine. They are both daughters of Colonel Munro, commander of Fort William Henry in the midst of The French and Indian War.

A.) Our introduction to Alice comes moments after British Major Duncan Heyward has proposed to Cora. Alice waltzes in, oblivious to the proposal, and Duncan stands to greet her. Alice confirms that they are set to march with Duncan's regiment to Fort William Henry the next day and asks him, "Have you seen the red man?" This, of course, is a reference to their Indian "friends". This is not meant to indicate racism on Alice's part but merely a naivete. And this scene as a whole symbolizes everyone's naivete in the early years of their lives. Notice how eager Alice is to set off on said march. "What an adventure," she says, unaware of all the potential danger.

We're all eager during our youth to get on with living and doing "what we want to do". We talk excitedly of being "adults". We want to press on with the adventure in the march of our own lives to reach our own variations of Fort William Henry. Ah, but we don't know what awaits us in the colonial forests of the real world, do we?

B.) The next time we encounter Alice is during the aforementioned march. The regiment's guide for this march is a supposed Mohawk Indian named Magua. But alas, Magua is our villain and leads them into an ambush. We see Alice thrown from her horse. We watch Alice watch a scalping. She is horrified.

This is the moment when we all enter the real world for the first time, only to find ourselves ambushed by those realities. Alice watching that scalping represents the first time reality smacks us upside the head and we realize just what we've gotten ourselves into.

C.) In the course of the ambush, our trio of heroes - Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachcook - save the day. Once it has been saved, Uncas shoos away the horses Alice and Cora had been riding. "Stop it!" Alice cries. "We need them to get out!" But Uncas advises the horses are "too easy to track. Can be heard for miles." Notice the way Alice looks at him after he gives his explanation. It is the look of someone who is seeing and hearing something she never has.

Uncas becomes symbolic of that particular thing which saves each of our lives. Perhaps it's a person, or an occupation, or a hobby, or something else, who knows. Uncas is that which provides hope, allowing us to wake up every morning and save the day. We may not realize this at first (as Alice does not instantly recognize she loves Uncas) but we will.

D.) Our main characters trek through the wilderness where they encounter an Indian burial ground, a frontier cabin terrorized by a war party and a lovely waterfall wherein we gain our first hint of Uncas's attraction to Alice.

(Sidenote: At the waterfall take special note of how Alice treats this situation. Everyone else hikes right past this gorgeous display of gushing water and hikes up the rocky incline at its side. Chingachcook, Hawkeye, Duncan, Cora, they all do it. But Alice pauses to observe the waterfall to her left. She takes it in and then she climbs up. This is a moment for a writer to love. We writers are constantly taking time out to behold these things you other people ignore so much you don't even take them for granted. Go, Alice, go.)

At the conclusion of their dramatic expedition, the group ascends a ridge where Fort William Henry is waiting for them. As they scale this ridge, Duncan reassures Alice of the pleasures they will have at the fort and Alice excitedly declares how she cannot wait to see her father. But at the top of the ridge they look across the lake to find their destination under heavy attack from the French.

What we find here (in conjunction with the prior scenes) is the representation of that point in our lives when we have accepted some of our dreams have been dashed but still find resolve to seek out the dreams we have left. Or, to say it another way, much optimism has been stripped away but there is still defiance. Things had gone wrong but we are still determined to trek through the wilderness and reach our own personal Fort William Henry. But all that defiance and resolve wilts away when we come over that ridge and find our personal Fort William Henry under attack.

E.) Once inside the fort, Duncan tracks down Cora. He bursts into the room and Alice excuses herself by saying, "Talk to Duncan, Cora. I must manage. I cannot be an invalid schoolgirl." Oh, how this scene wrecks my heart. This is when we see that naive and hopeful shell that had been surrounding Alice begin to crack. That's how she views herself - as an invalid schoolgirl.

And don't we all reach the point when we realize we're invalid schoolgirls? Defiance turns to helplessness. We must accept who we are and decide if that's who we want to be.

F.) At the conclusion of the film, Alice and Cora - along with Duncan - find themselves prisoners of Magua, who drags them to his village to consult with the great Sachem - the leader of their Huron tribe. After much debate - and a heroic appearance by Hawkeye - the great Sachem decrees that Cora will burn in a fire for Magua's dead children but orders Magua to take Alice with him and keep her alive so Magua's heart is healed. (Cora isn't the point here, obviously, but her life is spared courtesy of a noble decision by Duncan.) It doesn't take much to guess that Magua is upset by this declaration as he and his war party haul Alice off to the "fire of the lakes". But Uncas has been watching all this from afar and goes after her.

Uncas fights his way through the first few Hurons of the war party and quickly comes face to face with Magua. Alice tries to go to Uncas but she is held back and therefore is forced to watch as Magua fatally wounds Uncas. Uncas steps back. He looks at Alice. She looks back. And this is when it all comes together. She realizes that for the first time in her entire existence as an "invalid schoolgirl" someone has appeared who cares completely and utterly for her. He has risked everything - including his life - for her. The single greatest thing to happen to Alice (ever! at any point!) has made itself known.

That's why, naturally, he dies. Literally seconds after figuring out how much he means to her, he's taken away. Magua finishes off poor Uncas and tosses his body over the side of the cliff.

But rather than continuing her march with the Hurons, Alice backs up to the edge of that very same cliff. She looks over the precipice and then back at Magua. Magua signals for her to come away from the ledge. But she doesn't. She stares at him, calmly and defiantly, and hurls herself off to meet the same fate as Uncas, side-by-side.

You may think this is depressing. You may think this is me being a bit morbid. How can someone committing suicide sum up the human existence? It's what Alice's choice represents, that's how. This is the first time in the whole movie that she has made a decision on her own. This is what SHE wants and this is what SHE'S choosing. It doesn't matter what Magua wants. Or what Cora (who witnesses Alice's leap) wants. Or what God wants. It's what ALICE wants. So that's what she does. She chooses life in death.

I wept the first time I saw this. I've wept on many subsequent viewings of this. It's the most beautiful moment in the history of art. It made me want to write movies and made me want to make movies. And it's why - contrary to what people feel the need to tell me all the damn time - Alice Munro is more than just a movie character.

To people who constantly make that claim allow me to say that I sincerely apologize for not knowing you had no soul.

No comments: