I’ve never read anything by American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, author of the book from which The Last of the Mohicans was adapted. But if Mark Twain is to be believed a decent critic of letters, I’m not missing much. Or, to be precise and on the contrary, I’m missing a lot because, as a friend once opined, “I wish he were James Feniless Cooper.” So it seems that the consensus is that if Cooper was anything, it wasn’t economical. And neither, really, is filmmaker Michael Mann (though it’s not necessarily a bad thing with him). A man who toils in ostensible action films, Mann’s work slowly percolates before hitting a full roil as he allows minute details to create the fuller flavor when the action finally hits.
So it’s sort of a surprise that Mann’s adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans is such a tight and nimble affair that yet still feels robust and epic. But in all transparency, Mann’s film isn’t a finely combed reworking of the original source material, but is a copy of a copy; less adapted from the novel itself but from the 1936 adaptation by John L. Balderston, Daniel Moore, Paul Perez, and Philip Dunne which was the basis of the George Seitz-directed version of The Last of the Mohicans starring Randolph Scott.
Set in 1757 during the third year of the French and Indian war, The Last of the Mohicans spins the yarn of Cora (Madeline Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) Munro, daughters of British Colonel Edmund Munro (Maurice Roëves) who are attacked by their Mohawk-née-Huron guide, Magua (Russell Means) on a march to a military fort and are subsequently intercepted and led to safety by a frontier family unit made up of the white born/native raised Nathanial ‘Hawkeye’ Bumppo (Daniel Day-Lewis); his Mohican father, Chingachgook (Russell Means); and brother, Uncas (Eric Schweig). Throw in some frontier romance that looks like the cover of a million and one bodice-rippers that would litter the rack of a Safeway in years long extinguished, a gloriously unsubtle and full-blooded score by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones, and Dante Spinotti’s cinematography making damn sure that every shot looks like a gorgeously textured painting, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a rousing adventure film that cleverly folds pulp into purpose.
If all of this sounds a little rustic for the glossy kind of urban plotting favored by Michael Mann, it’s not. For The Last of the Mohicans plays very well to Mann’s strengths and shows what makes him such a special filmmaker. Here the examination of a crime scene is replaced with the almost preternatural knowledge of just who and what slaughtered a defenseless frontier cabin. Nobody cases a score but Magua plots diligently and carefully to satiate his obsession with slaughtering the entire Munro family. Nobody has a history of existential baggage causing their personal lives to be high-tension quagmires of personal failure but there is an inevitable march to the same kind of doom and loneliness that befell Thief’s Frank and Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett and caused the endings to their tales to contain bitter, Pyrrhic victories.
Aside from expanding the widescreen visual language that had eluded Mann the previous seven years during his sojourn in television, The Last of the Mohicans is perhaps the most foundational embodiment of the Mann hero. Nathanial Bumppo is a man without a heritage, a white man raised in a native family in a land that is wild and tangled beyond its small British foothold. Not only does this expand to Magua, likewise disconnected from his roots after being taken a slave by the Mohawk people, this also expands to Mann’s reflection of the America as contemporarily dressed westerns in which the protagonists reside in the absolute middle between law and lawlessness, even when they themselves are cops and/or criminals. Mann’s heroes are just the progeny of the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch; fiercely independent and untamed criminals with a modicum of personal honor battling against authority figures right on the dividing line of the two. This is why Nathanial’s declaration of “I do not call myself subject to much at all” sounds suspiciously like Frank’s “I am Joe the Boss of my own body.”
As is his wont to do, Mann’s insistence on giving Magua a third dimension and not rendering him a cartoon villain without proper motivation makes the character a little less than the symbolic Francis Dollarhyde from Manhunter who served as a literal reflection of the protagonist. Here, the antagonist is placed into much more devastating territory, painted as someone understandably twisted by a hate in regards to a tragedy with which the audience can empathize. After all, didn’t we cheer Clint Eastwood’s titular character in The Outlaw Josey Wales back in 1976 for doing pretty much the same thing? And let the record state that I don’t exactly not root for Magua to kill Colonel Monroe and eat his heart, I’m just a little bearish on him killing the kids.
Mann puts his actors through the absolute ringer as they traverse uphill and down dale in some pretty rough terrain, earning themselves every layer of dishevelment that occurs to their wardrobes along the way. And while the whole cast is amazing, special mention has to be given to Daniel Day-Lewis for giving straight men the meaning of what it is to look like a whole snack. Despite its technical prowess, flawless pacing, and containing some of the most beautiful cinematography this side of Barry Lyndon or The Duellists the secret sauce of The Last of the Mohicans is likely its casting. Every now and again, I see a tweet make the rounds that states “My sexual orientation is the cast of 1999’s The Mummy,” replete with four stills of its principles. Well, I’ll see your Mummy and raise you a Last of the Mohicans because I know of no other film that oozes base sexuality and affects its viewers quite like this one without doing much of anything at all (though, quite honestly, neither does The Mummy). For about 55 minutes into the film, Mann stages one of the most erotically charged moments of his career that is astonishing in its ability to raise the temperature to a ridiculous degree without showing a single thing outside a passionate kiss. And it serves as a reminder that, though not generally thought of as a composer of romantic moments, Michael Mann certainly knows how to create almost painfully gorgeous sequences of physical sensuality. When Madeline Stowe coos “The whole world is on fire,” one is tempted to mutter “Yeah it is. Go ahead and let it burn.”
Put another way, a family dinner with my much more conservative parents and sister turned into a literal thirst trap as my mom, a woman who thinks long hair looks positively awful on men, couldn’t help but bemoan the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis cut his hair after production on The Last of the Mohicans wrapped and my sister, generally demur in such moments, offered up “Now… see… I liked his brother in that.”
A little something for everyone, America.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain