Empire “Masterpiece” #151 / Issue 325 / July, 2016
The Last of the Mohicans is an anomaly on Michael Mann’s CV. There are a couple of others – compromised WWII horror The Keep; the boxing biopic Ali – but to an overwhelming extent his preferred milieu has been the crime thriller, from 1981’s Thief to last year’s Blackhat. Back in 1992, however, he hadn’t made a feature film since Manhunter, and had spent the best part of a decade showrunning Miami Vice. A romantic historical action adventure, Mohicans was a welcome breath of North Carolina air.
While it’s historically reverent, Mohicans doesn’t actually have a lot of time for the novel on which it’s nominally based. As much as he was adapting James Fenimore Cooper, Mann was channelling the svelte 1936 movie version he’d been indelibly impressed by on television as a child. Cooper’s 1826 “classic” – these days still widely studied on American literature courses but probably not much enjoyed – is, to modern eyes, almost unreadable: laughably written (Mark Twain wrote an essay about Cooper’s copious “Literary Offenses” as early as 1895) and jarring with 21st century sensibilities in its siding with the colonial invaders. As a considerable landowner himself, Cooper was of the opinion that the potential the whites saw for the exploitation of the land far outweighed any actual Native American rights to it.
Mann’s film then, completely subverts the original author’s agenda, giving space to the complex contemporary factional politics between the British, French and indigenous tribes and rounding out the characters on all sides so that while there’s palpable threat from the Huron antagonists, there’s context for their actions. Wes Studi in particular gets to be a far more complex villain than he did as a cartoon scalper in Dances With Wolves. Magua can be properly vicious, but we’re left with no illusions about his bitterness under the yoke of colonialism and his own tragic history. The British and French see him as a tame dog, but he’ll bite his “masters” at the first opportunity, and there’s deep ambiguity to the fact that we can’t really blame him. Magua understands the English very well.
Elsewhere the performances are equally strong. Of course, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis, inhabiting his character as always, his chameleonic Method dictating he was never without his rifle, on or off set, besides undergoing months of survivalist training. By the time shooting started, he was a functioning frontiersman, capable of living off the land, alone, for weeks at a time. Madeleine Stowe combines pre-Raphaelite beauty with earthy feistiness as Cora Munro, daughter of the British colonel who’s Magua’s most hated enemy; Steven Waddington is stoic as the ultimately hapless Major Heyward; and Russell Means – himself a Native American activist – imbues the final Mohican, Chingachgook, with gravitas and nobility. Like the film, the character is doleful, honourable and deeply sincere.
As Cora’s sister Alice and Chingachgook’s son Uncas, Jodhi May and Eric Schweig admittedly have less material to work with, but they nevertheless manage to convey a love affair entirely through looks. That silence is part of the film’s unique atmosphere. Several of The Last of the Mohicans’ major moments are accompanied by little more than the ambient whisper of the incredible landscape: a vast, beautiful expanse that dwarfs the action. Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones’ memorable score – a last-minute victory pulled from the jaws of defeat when Mann decided not to go electronic after all – complements that quiet, rather than drowning it out. And if you can take or leave the sudden intrusion of folk group Clannad’s theme, at least they try to sound authentic: the lyrics are in English, Mohican and Cherokee.
Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is also key, framing the breathtaking Appalachian landscapes (he’s good at dark, smoky interiors too) and capturing any number of amazing moments. There’s the firework display in the distance that’s gradually revealed to be a musket battle; the final wordless sequence on the promontory; and the “I will find you” jump through the waterfall (a similar scene in The Fugitive, released the same year, looks limp and weightless in comparison). The violence is visceral, but the emotional moments are equally strong. Even when it’s awash with blood, Spinotti keeps the film beautiful.
Mann has tinkered with various cuts of The Last of the Mohicans in the years since its original release, but the differences are minimal and can be hard to even spot. Crucially, he’s never significantly added to its length. It’s an undeniably epic film, yet it’s lean and has momentum, with the various versions all clocking in at under two hours. Historical adventure filmmaking in the decades since has rarely if ever been this passionate, solemn, or thrilling – at least, not all at once. But The Last of the Mohicans does have its descendants. At the end of the film, Hawkeye, Cora and Chingachgook look out from the mountain and consider what lies in the future. Filmed in similar locations but set about 70 years later, the desolation of The Revenant is the gloomy answer.