In my experience it’s the white man who does the scalping.
War is an interesting concept wherein life is both priceless and worthless depending upon which side you call yours. When it’s a matter of taking something that you want but do not possess, those who currently hold it are expendable. And when they fight back to retain it we call them enemies, savages. Here they are defending themselves from an invading force and yet they are in the wrong. It’s a fine line between justice and greed, survival and entitlement. We’ve constantly toed it since the dawn of time, bending it to fit our cause and indoctrinate our future. Eventually no one knows what really started the carnage left in our wake. We only know we are superior, the same as they do themselves. Eventually we’re all monsters.
This is a truth many depictions of historical events (whether fiction or not) forget. Too often these stories are told in a way that cleanses the teller’s participation. It’s why our schoolbooks hold us not only as victors, but righteous as well. It’s why racism and bigotry prevail from one generation to the next with parents raising their children in their mold. Religion cannot save us because we shape that to our whims too. Morality cannot save us because believing you’re in the right automatically renders you moral regardless of your actions. Suddenly killing is heroic if it was done for a cause. Murder becomes forgiven because God was guiding your hand. But these are constructions we create to sleep at night—hypocrites every single one of us.
Writer/director Ted Geoghegan understands this and along with co-writer Grady Hendrix depicts it with an unwavering brutality in his film Mohawk. He shows the fire burning within, the rage we wield sometimes without any cause other than self-preservation. But while that is usually spun in a way to seem commendable, Geoghegan draws a scenario where death—despite being helped along by outsiders—arrives by one’s own actions. He sets his journey into Hell at the tail end of the War of 1812 with the Mohawk tribe content to remain neutral. As the fight inches closer, however, that choice is inevitably taken out of their control. Should they therefore side with the Americans or British? Chances are the victor will turn its sights back towards them no matter what.
So Geoghegan sweetens the pot by adding a motivating factor we know too well: love. He provides it as a means to color decisions such as Okwaho (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain) going against the former’s mother’s wishes by cultivating a verbal alliance with the British through their mutual lover Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren). This white man isn’t selling them a bill of goods either. He’s devoted to them both and truly believes their siding with the Redcoats is the best chance at survival. But just as love lights a way forward, it can also distort the path. It will cause those under its spell to make rash judgments and make matters worse before they can ever hope to be better. Calvin goes too far.
His actions bring the fury of an American contingent holed up close to their land. It’s a pack of men as bloodthirsty as they are scared—a lethal combination. There’s love between them too and not simply through the father/son dynamic shared by Captain Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) and Myles (Ian Colletti). They are “brothers” in this fight. They are compatriots who will quite literally die for the other in order to ensure their shared goals are achieved. So when one of them steps over the line of decency, his fellow soldiers must rally to his cause. It means Beal (Robert Longstreet), Allsopp (Jon Huber), and especially the coward Yancy (Noah Segan) must put the “mission” above themselves if only because its failure could mean their ultimate demise.
The plot is therefore a simple one. On one side is the trio that may have put an entire people into a war they chose to ignore and the other consists of the victims of that decision. The former is the marginalized stripped of their humanity by monstrous usurpers, the latter a band of falsely empowered nationalists screaming fidelity to a land they stole who prove the unwitting sufferers at the hand of a tribe with every right to kill them despite saying they wouldn’t. I guess maybe it is complicated after all—in the abstract. While we see a cat and mouse suspense chase on the surface with tables turning at least three times, it’s easy to want to confuse good and bad.
I say “want” because Holt and his men are very much the villains. Geoghegan epitomizes why an argument like “all sides” cannot work in situations fueled by hate speech. He allows his characters to find themselves in a position of sympathy, but never lets us forget who they are. Should Richard Spencer be cold-cocked on-camera? Maybe not. Does Richard Spencer deserve to be punched? Definitely. Should Holt’s men suffer the tragedy they do in the way that they do at the hands of Calvin’s impulsive desire to reclaim what’s his? No. But do they deserve it? Yes. Think about what’s happening here. A war is being fought between colonizer and colonists while the displaced helplessly look on. The Mohawk are the only ones involved who can claim righteousness.
And yet we’ve seen this story before where they’re the ones we hate. Yes they kill and yes they prove vicious, but so do their oppressors. The difference is that they have reason for their rage and vengeance. What does the white man have besides a glorified argument of “finders keepers?” That’s why it is so powerful to see Buzzington fall apart emotionally when the type of senseless pain he wreaks hits home. It’s powerful because we see him experience that which he forces upon countless others he deems inferior without realizing that’s what’s happening. Rather than find clarity, he descends further. This is why this problem has stayed as potent as it has today. This is why the marginalized continue to struggle to be heard.
So I won’t lie and say it isn’t satisfying to watch the aftermath. As the graphic gore sprays blood and rips bodies apart, we witness the nihilistic futility involved. We watch people die one by one on either side until survival seems little more than solitude. But we also see the land itself come to life and choose its owner. As America and Britain battle for the ground they stand on, it remembers whom it belongs to and it breathes life into them through nightmarish fever dreams of its divine wrath. The earth itself shows both parties their demons in physical form. One side embraces them to absorb their strength and the other cowers at their feet. When you refuse to learn, maybe you do deserve death.