The Last Of The Mo­hi­cans


Empire (UK) - - REVIEW - words OWEN WILLIAMS

BY 1992, MICHAEL MANN HAD DI­RECTED Man­hunter and spent the best part of a decade showrun­ning Mi­ami Vice. In the years since, crime thrillers have re­mained his prin­ci­pal pas­sion. Ro­man­tic his­tor­i­cal ac­tion-ad­ven­ture The Last Of The Mo­hi­cans is still an anom­aly on his CV. While his­tor­i­cally rev­er­ent, it doesn’t ac­tu­ally have a lot of time for the James Fenimore Cooper novel on which it’s nom­i­nally based. In­stead, Mann was chan­nelling the svelte 1936 movie ver­sion he’d been in­deli­bly im­pressed by when he saw it on tele­vi­sion as a child. Cooper’s 1826 “clas­sic” — still widely stud­ied on Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture cour­ses — is, to mod­ern eyes, barely read­able: laugh­ably writ­ten (a tracker picks up a trail un­der the wa­ter of a stream, for ex­am­ple, and the hero spends a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time dis­guised as a bear; Mark Twain wrote an es­say in 1895 about Cooper’s co­pi­ous “Lit­er­ary Of­fenses”) and at odds 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 Na­tive Amer­i­can rights to it.

Mann’s film, then, com­pletely sub­verts the au­thor’s agenda, giv­ing space to the com­plex fac­tional pol­i­tics be­tween the Bri­tish, French and in­dige­nous tribes. 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 while we might not like him, we can’t re­ally blame him for that. Magua un­der­stands the English very well.

Other per­for­mances are equally strong. The chameleonic Daniel Daylewis in­hab­its his char­ac­ter, Hawk­eye, as al­ways: while shoot­ing he kept his ri­fle by his side both on and 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 pre­raphaelite beauty with earthy courage as Cora Munro, daugh­ter of the Bri­tish colonel who is 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 re­versed his de­ci­sion to go elec­tronic — com­ple­ments that quiet, rather than drown­ing it out. If you can take or leave the sud­den in­tru­sion of folk group Clan­nad’s theme, at least they try to be au­then­tic: the lyrics are in English, Mo­hi­can and Chero­kee.

And then there are those land­scapes. Dante Spinotti’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy is key, fram­ing the breath­tak­ing Ap­palachian vis­tas (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 a year later, looks slight 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 re­leased 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 around 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 movie does have its descen­dants. At the end of the film, Hawk­eye, Cora and Chin­gach­gook look out from the moun­tain and con­sider what lies ahead. Shot in sim­i­lar lo­ca­tions but set about 70 years later, the bat­tle-torn vis­tas of The Revenant pro­vide the gloomy an­swer.

“His­tor­i­cal ad­ven­ture has rarely been this thrilling.”

1 Hawk­eye (Daniel Day-lewis) amid the fray, as the Bri­tish are at­tacked by the Huron. 2 Wes Studi as morally com­plex vil­lain Magua. 3 Hawk­eye finds him­self in irons af­ter aid­ing Bri­tish sol­diers to desert.

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