' Cinema Romantico: Dissecting A Scene From Last of the Mohicans

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Dissecting A Scene From Last of the Mohicans


In the midst of their journey to Fort William Henry our intrepid gang of six has stopped to camp for the night in the midst of the wilderness. Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) gets up and crosses to where Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis), musket in hand, mans a lookout position. He does not so much as glance at her, yet can we sense that he senses her presence. It is clear she has something to ask. It takes her a moment, but she does.

Cora: "Why didn't you bury those people?"

-Cora is referring to the family of John and Alexandra Cameron, friends of Hawkeye's, who in the prior scene they have found murdered, their cabin burnt out.

Hawkeye: "Anyone looking for our trail would have seen it as a sign we passed that way."
Cora: "You knew them well?"

-Now Hawkeye finally turns to look at her. He says nothing. The look implies "yes" to her question. 

Cora: "You were acting for our benefit and I apologize. I misunderstood you."
Hawkeye: "Well, that's to be expected. My father says-"
Cora: "Your father?"
Hawkeye: "Chingachcook. He warned me about people like you."
Cora: "Oh, he did?"

-Great line reading by Stowe. For but a moment they are no longer in the forests of upstate New York but in a posh London parlor room. "I'm sorry, Miss Munro, but Mr. Wadsworth just took the last crumpet." "Oh, he did?"

Hawkeye: "He said, 'Do not try to understand them.'"
Cora: "What?"
Hawkeye: "Yes. 'And do not try to make them understand you. That is because they are a breed apart and make no sense.'"

-Suddenly, ominous music plays, Hawkeye snaps to focus and readies his musket. A roving gang of enemy French and French allied Indians are quietly advancing on the position of our intrepid gang. At this, Cora removes the dropped pistol she grabbed earlier. Hawkeye sees this and hands her his horn of gun powder. And THAT moment perhaps more than any I have ever seen on film captures equality of the sexes. He doesn't look at her incredulously. He doesn't snatch the gun away from her and shake his head. He doesn't scold her: "Carrying guns is un-ladylike!" He just hands her the powder. She's got a gun. She needs powder to shoot. Whatevs.

The French and their Indian counterparts briefly argue. They back up. They slink away. Cora wonders why turned back and Hawkeye replies "burial ground" and only NOW do we see they have set up their camp right on the edge of an anicent Indian burial ground. And this is when we realize this brief interlude is not an excuse to inject a little suspense into the proceedings but a precise illustration of what Hawkeye has just explained. Cora knows it. Which is why she says...

Cora: "A breed apart? We make no sense?"
Hawkeye: "In your particular case, miss, I make allowance."
Cora: "Thank you so much."

-Obviously Cora is not satisfied with his "apology" but forges on nonetheless.

Cora: "Where's your real family?"
Hawkeye: "They buried my Ma and Pa and my sisters. Chingachcook found me with two French trappers and raised me up as his own."
Cora: "I'm sorry."
Hawkeye: "I don't remember. I wasn't but one or two."
Cora: "How did you learn English?"
Hawkeye: "Chingachcook sent Uncas and I to Reverend Wheelock's school when we were ten."

-This, of course, is just exposition, filling in the blanks of Hawkeye's background. But as a writer Michael Mann is always just a bit more clever than that and Stowe's face in this moment SELLS the fact that she was just using that gettin'-to-know-you chit chat to evade what she REALLY wanted to ask. Which is this...

Cora: "Why were those people living in this defenseless place?"
Hawkeye: "After seven years indentured service they headed out here because frontier is the only land available to poor people. Out here they're beholden to none. Not living by another's leave."

-Day Lewis's face on that last line is just EPIC Day Lewis. If I've said it once, I've said it 46,000 times - Hawkeye would have made that nancy boy Daniel Plainview quake in his bowling shoes.

Hawkeye: "There name was Cameron. John and Alexandra Cameron."

-Cora looks away. Then she looks to the stars, spread out in a 1757 sky. God Almighty, what must it have been like to stare up at a 1757 sky? Hawkeye looks up with her. Now his voice is calm, tender.

Hawkeye: "My father's people say that at the birth of the sun and of his brother, the moon, their mother died. So the sun gave to the earth her body from which was to spring all life. And he drew forth from her breast the stars. The stars he threw into the night sky to remind him of her soul. So there's the Camerons' monument. My folks', too, I guess."

-On that last line Day Lewis allows both a smile and the most quiet of laughs. It's amazing to see how he can flip in an instant from a warrior at the ready to someone who can recount something so lyrical and mean it so truly. And how amazing must it be to Cora? Here is a woman told by her would-be-suitor Duncan (Steven Waddington), the British major likely sulking somewhere nearby because Cora is talking to this other dude, in their first scene together that she should rely on his judgment. His! Not hers! HIS!!! How nice must it be to meet a guy who doesn't question her holding a pistol and then can get turn right around and get all poetical.

Cora: "You are right, Mr. Poe. We do not understand what is happening here. It's not as I imagined it would be thinking of it in Boston and London."
Hawkeye: "Sorry to disappoint you."
Cora: "On the contrary. It is more deeply stirring to my blood...then any imagining could possibly have been."

5 comments:

flixchatter.net said...

BRILLIANT breakdown of a great scene, Nick. I never thought of his decision of Hawkeye to give the gunpowder to Cora as a symbol of 'equality' but wow, I can totally see that. Hawkeye's way more modern in his thinking than any of the Western men fighting him.

EPIC Day Lewis... I like the sound of that, and boy is he hunky! That love scene of them by the barn, woo weeee... [fan self]

Nick Prigge said...

Their love scene is just beyond compare. Beyond words. Beyond everything. Their chemistry is untouchable.

Unknown said...

Right, something that a lot of people won't have picked up, but that I take more from Cooper's original than the Randolp Scott and Mann films....

If you actually know the history behind many of the British characters, in particular the Munro's you will know that Colonel Munro is descended from the Munro who beat the 1690 uprising at Dunkeld...and he is also of Covenantor stock and himself suffered persecution and had to fight against the Stuart forces of the establishment pre the Glorious revolution...

Therefore the Munro's are descended from the underdog but have made it good. They themselves are of the same stock of people as the Cameron's but fate has in the long run dealt them a kinder hand...

Therefore my interpretation of Cora saying about it being more stirring to her blood is that Fenimore Cooper was trying to allude to the historical treatment of the Munro family - part Covenantor, part Highlander. Therefore the life she is experiencing in the America's is the same as she felt her forbears did and she feels akin to these people.

The problem is that the Randolph Scott and Mann films get too tied up with the 'bad old British exploiting the Colonial underdog' idea and don't see the bigger picture that the Munro family have themselves been the underdog who rose to greater things...

AST said...

Another thing I find it quiet ironic that the original blogger states that the Mann Film stays closer to Cooper's work than other versions when the changes are glaring - for example the swapping of the roles of Cora to Alice and Vice Versa...

AST said...

Another thing I find it quiet ironic that the original blogger states that the Mann Film stays closer to Cooper's work than other versions when the changes are glaring - for example the swapping of the roles of Cora to Alice and Vice Versa...