Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Wes Studi, Stephen Waddington

Directed by Michael Mann

Written by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe; adapted from the novel by James Fenimore Cooper and George B. Seitz’s 1936 film adaptation of the same name

–                                                          –                                                         –

People are products of their age, and insofar people can also be products of their age’s culture.  In the culture of film, one doesn’t have to be a film critic to recognize that films like 1967’s The Graduate, or 1977’s Star Wars were profoundly affected by the decade they were released in, and therefore profoundly affected the decades after.

I would not be so brazen as to compare the above-reference cultural powerhouses with that of Michael Mann’s action/adventure period piece The Last of the Mohicans, but I will state that in my film classes at university, among my closest film peers, I’ve noticed that it is a film that is ingrained in its time period.  Frankly, everybody knows and remembers it.

Recall the violent colonial ambushes: scarlet redcoats cut down by Natives that seem to materialize like mist out of thick treelines , the final climactic showdown on the cliffs of the Adirondack Mountains, Daniel Day-Lewis rescuing raven-haired beauty Madeleine Stowe, Daniel Day-Lewis running while firing two muskets, Daniel Day-Lewis jumping through a waterfall.  Mainly, recall Daniel Day-Lewis.

Upon its release Mohicans was met with box-office success as well as critical aplomb through nationwide newspapers.  Whatever the age group, people went to and returned to the theaters to see it not because they were familiar with the 1826 novel, or the French and Indian War, or the plight of the semi-mythic Mohican peoples – they went because Mohicans gave the filmgoer a historical drama unlike any other, a marketable one.

In the 1980s came a slew of historical period pieces that snagged Oscars and Oscar nominations by the barrelful (1984’s Amadeus, 1986’s The Mission, 1987’s The Last Emperor) but failed to appeal to the regular moviegoer, the non-critic, the person just wanting to see something interesting Friday night.

And then the successful ones, the ones that struck a chord in audiences, like 1981’s Chariots of Fire or 1985’s Out of Africa, weren’t ones that a self-described red-blooded American saw with his buddies.  They were reserved for his family, or, in the latter’s case, for his spouse.  And came with tissues.

Mohicans blasted onto the historical drama landscape of the new decade finding the perfect medium between good drama and good action.  The violence – scalpings, eviscorations, bloody tomahawks and immolations – set the pace of a period action/adventure for a new generation, but while outright explosive, is complementary among the other fine work found in all corners of Mann’s film.

Italian veteran Dante Spinotti mans the camera, and finds perfect middle ground between the frantic doses of kinetic energy that detail the action sequences, and the sweeping panoramas of the smokey, grandiose green mountain ranges of colonial America.  The score, helmed by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, captures each moment with perfect, sweeping arrangements.  But it is the theme music, crafted from Scottish instrumentalist Dougie MacLean’s song “The Gael”, that turned the very popular soundtrack into a bestseller.

The acting, blended with the authenticity of dedicated historians, creates a palpable period piece, and in terms of culture influence brings an important but fairly unreadable American literary classic to a whole new kind of plane.

Fenimore’s main character of Hawkeye is in this version smoldering captured by Day-Lewis, a white settler taken in as an infant by Chingachgook (Russell Means) and his own son Uncas (Eric Schweig) – the last of the Mohican tribe of  East Alonquian Native Americans.

With the fury of the French and Indian War as the backdrop, Hawkeye is apathetic in regards to the coming storm, and fervently opposes he or his fellow colonials joining the British army as a contingent.

But when by fate the trio rescue the daughters of Colonel Edmund Munro, Alice and Cora (Stowe), in a violent ambush en route to Fort William Henry, the last of the Mohicans become inexorably embroiled in the sweeping conflict.  Complicating matters, Hawkeye and Cora develop a fiery romance despite her being basically betrothed to haughty Major Duncan (a very underrated performance from Stephen Waddington).

Day-Lewis, fresh from his Academy Award-winning role as Christy Brown in My Left Foot three years earlier, was involved in his first real American blockbuster with Mohicans, and his inimitable method style – learning how to live off the land and make his own camp, carrying a long rifle at all times – was much publicized.

Director Mann would go on to reunite America’s two greatest living actors in 1995’s Heat, before making two of the coolest movies of the 2000s with 2004’s Collateral and 2006’s Miami Vice.  The fact that he just as successfully created the standout colonial America film as he did films with gangsters, drug dealers and cops highlights his acumen.

A few critics did not fall for the stirring romance of a Mohicans’ new kind of period drama, notably Desson Thomson of The Washington Post, who lambasted the film as “an MTV version of Gothic romance”.

While Thomson makes a good point when he calls the romance between Hawkeye and Cora tacked-on, the whole war ” grist for their love”, (We discussed this when he taught my Introduction to Film class at GMU my junior year, to my good fortune) this is not an airbrushed movie, a glamorous depiction of a violent, turbulent and unknown portion of early America.  It is realistic, and painstakingly made to look so; and if the wholesale score, vicious action and sumptuous naturalist imagery make it not only a good movie but a chartburster, that’s to our benefit.

All film is accessible, even the most boring, superficial and just plain horrible.  I am no film egalitarian, but nor am I an elitist. If a film can be immensely popular, while at the same time standing aside thespian-filled dramatic behemoths of its age, it’s a treasure; the best of both worlds.

The Last of the Mohicans will always remain such – a bolt of excitement and rousing romance, a true modern epic of its time and a perennial popular culture embodiment.

Images courtesy of emuleday.com and anomalousmaterial.com.

Desson Thomson quoted in The Washington Post, Sep. 25, 1992.

Advertisements