With one Eighties-chic, progressively atmospheric TV series on his resume (Miami Vice), another (Crime Story) applying the music-video aesthetic to the Sixties, a feature film about a techno-burglar with a heart of gold (Thief), and another (Manhunter) introducing the cannibalistic serial killer, few in their right minds would offer Michael Mann as a self-recommending choice to direct an historical saga of the French and Indian War in the mid-Eighteenth Century, let alone an adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's most well-known novel, The Last of the Mohicans. But Hollywood is Hollywood, a subworld of changing guises -- off the screen as much as on -- and it follows that Mann is the right-as-rain choice to inject steroids into Cooper's idyllic depiction of the white man's immersion into mythic Indian culture. (Such are the times, perhaps we should be grateful it is Mann -- and not Garry Marshall or his sister, Penny -- at the helm.)
Neither epic in scale nor especially protracted in duration -- with a running time of less than two hours -- Mann's The Last of the Mohicans is more tastefully filmed and only slightly more careful of period detail than last year's Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, admittedly no great praise. In the novel, written by Cooper in 1826, the plot moves around a pair of English sisters, Cora and Alice Munro, who seek to join their father, a redcoat commander, at the embattled Fort William Henry near Lake Champlain. Magua, the leader of a group of Hurons and aligned with the French in the war, attempts to block their course. The women are saved by the trio of Uncas, the last of the Mohicans, Chingachgook, his father, and their friend, Natty Bumppo, a white who has been with the Mohicans since childhood and prefers their selfless ways to the exploitative course of the white man. The book, set in 1757, is an exciting chronicle of pursuits and flights, ending dramatically, as the ill-fated lovers, Cora and Uncas, escape by committing suicide.
Unlike the early western movies of our own century, which depicted Cherokees and other tribes as illiterate buffoons falling from galloping ponies upon an over-the-shoulder rifle shot, Cooper traversed the other end of the spectrum -- he idealized the Indians' bravery: "Few men exhibit greater diversity, or, if we may so express it, greater antithesis of character than the native of North America. In war, he is daring, boastful, cunning, ruthless, self-denying, and self-devoted; in peace, he is just, generous, hospitable, revengeful, superstitious, modest, and commonly chaste."
Bumppo is Cooper's most outlandish creation -- the white man as superhero. This character appears and reappears in the collection of The Leatherstocking Tales, of which The Last of the Mohicans is the second, and he's known by a variety of names -- Pathfinder, Deerslayer, Leatherstocking, and in this one, Hawkeye. He represents the unbridled and incorruptable man of nature; he's even more skilled than the natives in woodcraft and tracking paths. Hawkeye's untarnished perfection was the object of much ridicule, as Mark Twain's famous critical spoof on the author, and subsequent revisions of popular culture countermanding this model, variously attest.
For the film, Mann and his co-writer, Christopher Crowe, have amended the plot to make the central love story involve Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Cora (Madeleine Stowe). Uncas (Eric Schweig) is relegated to a secondary capacity; he falls for Alice (Jodhi May) and the double suicide is actually a single -- Alice decides to fall off a cliff after watching Magua (Wes Studi) slay Uncas. The filmmaking shifts between the languid and the hypertense in roughly predictable ways, the cinematography is extremely pretty -- North Carolina doubles for upstate New York -- and the violence is incorrigibly modern, with endless sequences of unmotivated carnage punctuated by hatchets flying in the direction of the camera, an inversion of Robin Hood's arrow's-point-of-view shot. The ludicrousness of this film has few equals, but then again, The Last of the Mohicans has not been an especially lucky novel on film: Randolph Scott led the 1936 assault on Cooper, and adding injury to insult, a sagging Steve Forrest played Hawkeye in the 1977 TV-movie Mohicans. Only in their company does Michael Mann manage to escape the severest criticism.
At the center of the travesty is Daniel Day-Lewis's long-locked and tomahawk-wielding Nathaniel, an eighteenth-century rock star if ever there was one. As an actor, Day-Lewis seems to have it all: fine carriage, imposingly good looks, personality, and that most mysterious gift of all (and a talent he shares with another British phenomenon, Gary Oldman), the ability to immerse himself completely into character. These have undoubtedly served the actor well in recent years playing a homosexual punker in My Beautiful Laundrette, an epicene Edwardian fop in A Room with a View, a testosteroneous East European in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and best of all, the Irish artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot. But Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye is a blankly narcissistic portrayal of contemporary sensibilities -- and he's contrived to find a voice for Nathaniel that sounds like Mel Gibson at his most synthetically "sensitive." Both Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe are so preternaturally sweet-looking, in fact, that you begin to wonder whether their contributions are meant to inform a tale of colonialism or adorn a bottle of cologne. (The only actors worth noting are Wes Studi, a Cherokee, who plays the evil Magua; and Patrice Chereau, one of France's great avant-garde directors, as the French commander who defeats the British.)
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It goes without saying that the period otherwise known as the Enlightenment -- whose stately pulse Stanley Kubrick captured (to a fault) in his faithful adaptation of Thackeray's Barry Lyndon -- is rendered by Michael Mann as merely another lush movie set. The picture matches the chronological authenticity of Blazing Saddles!, albeit unintentionally. To be sure, good directors don't come in numbers, and great ones certainly aren't made by feeble attempts to stretch their abilities -- and the audience's credulity -- beyond natural limits. We know that Spike Lee will never adapt Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest for the big screen, but who's to say Michael won't, and soon?
Ah, but that's the wisdom of Mann.
THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS
Directed by Michael Mann; written by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe; with Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Steven Waddington, Jodhi May, Russell Means, Patrice Chereau, Eric Schweig, and Wes Studi.