Thursday, June 23, 2016

Five Great Tomahawk Movies

            "Magua will eat his heart..."

             Invented by the Algonquin Indians, the tomahawk found popularity amongst fellow natives and colonial settlers alike for its many uses, and remains a popular tool and weapon to this very day. It's use as both a throwing weapon and in hand-to-hand combat makes it an inherently cinematic weapon, one that westerns and other, similar genre fair have made good use of for much of the motion picture's lifespan. The qualifications for a "Great Tomahawk Movie" are very simple: it doesn't have to be great movie in and of itself, but it should showcase the varied uses of a combat tomahawk.. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the best cinematic uses of the tomahawk - and by "best," I mean, "my personal favorites."

HONORABLE MENTION: Bone Tomahawk (2015)

            I'd probably have to revoke my film nerd membership permanently if I didn't at least mention this one, although it's distinct lack of any solid tomahawk action keeps it just outside the others. S. Craig Zahler's film is otherwise exemplary in every regard, more focused on character moments and the dragging, slow pace of trail life. The film is so quiet and meditative for most of its run-time that it makes the Miike horror show ending all the more intense and impactful as a result, with one death scene in particular sure to make even the most hardened gorehounds wince in its unforgiving brutality. The horror western is a sadly underutilized genre, but with an excellent cast of badasses headlined by Kurt Russell and its overall creepy atmosphere, Bone Tomahawk stands atop that hill as the best yet made.

5. The Revenant (2015)

            All right, so Alejandro G. Inarritu's adaptation of Michael Punke's novel is a perfect example of an emperor with no clothes--a plodding, pretentious film a little too in love with its own profundity, but ultimately just as empty, hollow and thematically confused as any Hollywood summer blockbuster.... And that's before we get into its arbitrary changes from the source material and the actual story of Hugh Glass, which really didn't need to be changed in the first place. But, as a mean action thriller, The Revenant works, muscular and brawny and absolutely the most beautiful action movie ever made. And the tomahawk fight at the end between Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hardy easily scores it a place on this list, an all-timer in which fingers are hacked off and the characters inflict countless bloody stab wounds to each other all over the place. It's a shame the rest of the movie is so muddled--had Inarritu focused on making a lean genre movie instead of his usual "profound" mumbo-jumbo, we could have really had something with this one.

4. The Patriot (2000)

          One of the most shamelessly manipulative movies ever made, Roland Emmerich's ham-handed chronicle of the American Revolution is also an irresistible romp from beginning to end--much of that due to Mad Mel tomahawking the shit of people. Forget the actual history: this is nothing more than outlandish fantasy, in which Jason Isaacs' villain is just this side of Dick Dastardly from Wacky Races, and where early America is depicted as a sort of harmonious Eden where "free" black field-hands work hand-in-hand with their very white plantation owner. But even though all of that makes the film more than a little silly, there is much to admire throughout. The movie does have a surprising bite from time to time, such as the scene where Gibson's Benjamin Martin must enlist his young sons' help in rescuing their older brother by murdering an entire envoy of British soldiers, and all three watch on in horror as their peace-loving father turns the last surviving soldier into little more than hamburger meat. If you're looking for quality tomahawk action, look no further than The Patriot.

3. Mannaja (1977)

            Often cited as one of the last great spaghetti westerns, Mannaja is a hell of a note for the genre to end on, with Maurizio Merli's tomahawk-throwing main character Blade a classic spaghetti hero in the great Django tradition. The genre was well-known for its violence and sadism, and by the time Mannaja rolled around, all manner of Old West brutality had been chronicled in exacting detail, but Mannaja pushes the misanthropy even further: limbs are hacked off, women sadistically whipped in the street and our hero both delivers and receives all manner of beatings and gunshot wounds before the final credits roll. Director Sergio Martino was one of the great Italian hacks, weaving threadlike from genre to genre to deliver solid exploitation thrills. Although one of only two spaghettis Martino tackled (the director was better known for his giallo films and sex comedies), Mannaja is undeniably one of the greats of the Italian exploitation cinema of the sixties and seventies.

2. Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

            Christophe Gans' genre-bending French blockbuster is a film like no other, a kung fu/monster movie/period costume drama with religious cults and kinkiness all around. Honestly, it's worthy of making any list that would have it. But, this is a list of tomahawk movies, and so Brotherhood of the Wolf earns a spot for badass Mark Dacascos playing the Iroquis badass Mani. Dacascos gets to tomahawk everything in sight, whether it's in the thrilling showdown with the Beast of Gevaudon or an underground fight that just screams, "Frank Frazetta!" It's the type of movie that is thrilling in just how many elements it combines, and the fact that all of those elements are executed successfully makes it even more of a rare jewel worthy of rediscovery for those poor souls who have yet to gaze upon it.

1. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

            Michael Mann's adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's novel (although it seems more directly inspired by the old Randolph Scott film) is an oddity within the director's usual landscape of men trapped in urban life, although it's not an entirely unwelcome one. It's a thoroughly handsome production, with particular care given to all period details, like the muskets, knives and Chingachgook's massive gunstock war club (and, yes: also the tomahawks). Daniel Day-Lewis gets a chance to play against type and be a sexy action hero, but the real standout is Wes Studi's Magua, a stunning creation brought perfectly to life by the often under-appreciated Native American actor. It also still has some of the best hand-to-hand choreography ever featured in a motion picture, with the climactic mano-a-mano face-off between Chingachgook and Magua as the standout.


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