SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS FOLLOW
"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. [ . . . ] The frontier place is for people like my white son and his woman and their children. And one day there will be no more frontier. Then men like you will go, too. Like the Mohicans. And new people will come. Work, struggle. Some will make their life.
But once . . . we were here."
-- The Last of the Mohicans (Expanded Version), screenplay by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe.
These are the last words spoken in the film. The old chief Chingachgook, both the last father and the last son of a proud and dying nation (played with weight and authority by Russell Means, a real life indigenous rights activist making his acting debut) looks forward into what he believes to be the future of his people, and of all peoples.
The director's expanded version seen on DVD was the cut that introduced me to this film, and it absolutely confounds that anyone (director Mann, editors Dov Hoenig and Arthur Schmidt, or even 20th Century Fox executives) could have thought that a version of the film without these lines would be preferable to one with them. But someone must have felt otherwise, as the film was released theatrically with this quote admitted.
Regardless, these lines are out and available now, and thus are completely vulnerable to my dubious praise.
As someone who has had considerable background in the study of history and has worked in the museums, and as simply a lover of history and all its glorious paradoxes, I can hardly think of a better, more succinct way of describing the appeal of history, of the vast past that rests behind us but refuses to recede from us. In this moment, as Means and actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, huddled together for warmth and comfort, look out over the fog-covered mountains, mountains older than any one of them, older than the French or British Empires, older than the Mohican Tribe, mountains that will continue to exist until the day man hubristically decides he has no more need for them, the film perfectly captures that unique sense one has of history, that the past -- and all it consists of -- remains both entirely impermanent and inescapably present.
In short, Michael Mann needs to make another period film. Get crackin' on Azincourt, Mike.