' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Russell Means

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In Memoriam: Russell Means

When Ray Bolger died in 1987 to become the final member of the principal cast of "The Wizard of Oz" to pass away, I remember my mom telling me that this was a seminal moment, a momentous marker of the passing of time. I rember asking her if the principal cast of "Star Wars" would be considered in the same sort of reverent light as the years caught up to them and their time on Earth came to an end. She said that undoubtedly they would, specifically in the way that when one of them goes we think about all of them together. It's always stayed with me and I thought of it again yesterday when Russell Means passed away at the age of 72. To a great many he was an incendiary activist for Native American rights. To me he was and always will be Chingachgook, "Last of the Mohicans", and he is the first of the principal cast of My All Time Favorite Movie to die. I would be a liar if I said it didn't make me feel a strange pang of something I can't quite describe.

For as volatile as his real life was (and it was really volatile) I always found that it made his introspective, nearly silent performance that much more incredibly powerful. He has the first lines in the film in which he honors the body of the deer he and his two sons – Uncas and the adopted Hawkeye – have just tracked and killed. He has the last lines of the film in which he honors his deceased son, Uncas, by giving him a brief benediction. Between these passages, he has, maybe, three lines.

This fact does not merely underscore how he is a man of few words but how when he speaks it COUNTS for something. Most of the film Means is always there, always, on the edges of frames, one part of the Mohican trio that goes everywhere as one, observing, internalizing. Upon escorting the Munro daughters – Cora & Alice – safely to Fort William Henry and then attempting to the advise the commanding officer (Maurice Roeves), Cora & Alice’s father, of the enemy war party they encountered on the way which would be cause to release the colonial soldiers from duty to protect their farms and families, their pleas are dismissed. Hawkeye argues. Uncas argues. Later in the film even Cora argues. Chingachgook does not argue. Never says a thing. Why would he? Their arguments are useless, unheeded, a waste of precious breath. If his words won’t matter, why offer them?

During the film’s majestic third act, when Cora is allowed to leave the clutches of the bloodthirsty Huron Village and Duncan is left there to burn at the stake, Chingachgook tosses the musket to Hawkeye so that Hawkeye can ease Duncan’s pain by taking his life. Again, Chingachgook says nothing. He just grabs the musket and tosses to his adopted son and they both know exactly what this signifies.

When he rushes to confront Magua in the wake of Uncas’s death, his face betrays all the pain and madness a father would feel. It is riveting. And when he sizes Magua up in that moment before the final blow, there is no disguising his pure disgust with the worthlessness of revenge.

In the Director’s Cut Michael Mann chose to add several lines to Means’ movie-closing monologue. In it he says: “The frontier moves with the sun and pushes the Red Man of these wilderness forests in front of it until one day there will be nowhere left. Then our race will be no more, or be not us.” This addition was unnecessary, and not just because the lines are extremely on the nose.

It was unnecessary because Means’ performance had already expressed this sentiment perfectly.


Anonymous said...

I knew you'd be writing a memoriam post on Mr. Means, you did not disappoint Nick!

I heard on MPR that he's quite critical of Hollywood and calls it the most racist group in the world. Kinda sad that it's likely true. He was sooo good in The Last of the Mohicans. RIP Russell Means.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, Russell was definitely an opinionated man. And some of those opinions were not for the faint of heart. I really just know the broad outlines of his activist life but whatever he didn't or didn't do this movie is how I'll personally remember him.