Back to the Fox Collection elections now, and you can’t really argue with this one, given its huge B.O. success, rousing score and oft-uttered line “I will find you!” even if most often snarkily.
For some reason, back in 1992, crime-drama impresario Michael Mann (Miami Vice) decided to take a whack at James Fennimore Cooper’s musty tome The Last of the Mohicans. Was he locked into a deal at Fox for which he would be proffered a tidy sum for his directorial services? Or was he feeling nostalgic for a required reading selection from his high school years? Or, and probably most likely, did he feel he could add a modern day spin to a timeless tale of action, adventure and the great America tradition of whupping the ol’ redskins? For whatever reason, Mann’s take on the story took in a mighty fine 85 million at the box office, made actress Madeline Stowe a major star and proved that Daniel Day Lewis could carry a film that wasn’t a British indie about a physically handicapped artist.
So what does a film about the French/Indian war look like in the hands of the man who brought us Sonny Crocket and our first cinematic look at Hannibal Lecter? Not terrible, believe it or not. Mann is a visual director, make no mistake, but he settles comfortably in between the video-game sensibilities of your Michael Bay and the art-house leanings of a Terrence Mallick (both of whom have also helmed war epics). Sure, we get the overwrought bombings of the film’s centerpiece – the evacuation of Fort William Henry (I mean, can we be realistic about pre-20th century warfare in film? It took time to pack those muskets, load those cannons). But we also get tender moments between Hawkeye (Lewis) and Cora (Stowe), with better-than-average dialogue for films of this ilk. The Brits and the French deliver their lines with the appropriate, mannered histrionics, and the whole thing is corralled together with a steadying quasi-realism that gives us the veracity without its requisite tedium.
Of course, we know the story (dust off those books), but Mann’s Mohicans takes more than a few liberties with its source. Yes, it begins pretty much the same – Cora and Alice Munro are being escorted from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry to meet up with heir father, the soldier in command. Major Duncan Heyward escorts, but Magua, the Huron native, protects – at least he’s supposed to, When he leads them into an ambush, Natty Bumpo (Lewis) intercedes. We know him as Hawkeye – a white man raised as a native by Chingachgook, who also has a purebred son named Uncas. Hawk and the others lead the women safely to the fort as Magua escapes. Don’t worry; he’ll be back.
And here’s where movie version breaks from the book. Alice gets hot and steamy over Hawkeye – as the fort falls to the French, they fall in love. Colonel Munro, in refusing to offer succor to his Native American guests, and ordering Hawk’s hanging, comes off as the bad guy. And when everyone evacuates and Magua comes back to slay the loathsome redcoat in cold blood, we’re not exactly choked up. Another departure – Alice (not Cora) becomes attracted to Uncas, and Major Duncan gets burned alive by Magua when the soldier offers to trade his life for Cora’s. And instead of a big bloodbath when our heroes meet up with the Delewares, we get more precse deaths – Magua kills Uncas, Cora kills herself out of grief Chingachgook kills Magua out of vengeance. All that remain are Chingachgook, Hawkeye and Cora, facing the future – the horizon – intent on forging the new land with the memory of their slain brethren and the hope of a brighter frontier.
Mohicans didn’t exactly set the Oscars on fire that year – as I recall it had Oscar bait written all over it being a Fall release and having epic themes – and part of that might have to do with the fact hat it simply didn’t much to say. The costumes looked great and it was well shot – by today’s action standards it comes off looking refreshingly deliberate – but in the end we’re just looking at a sturdy adventure yarn. If they still taught he book Mohicans in schools today I can see this being well-viewed, but without its mandatory source material I can’t see an overwhelming reason to revisit this flick.
Ok, maybe a few. It was a pre-CGI, so all of the action scenes were real people, hard negative, no F/X. The Trevor Horn score is fantastic, no matter how many times you hear it.
And then there’s Madeline Stowe, who just might have been the most beautiful woman in the solar system when she was big. Mann knew it too, with loving, candlelit closeups and lingering profile shots of her fair-skinned face. Stowe was on fire then, in good films too, and she set my heart on fire. Boy, I loved the early 90s.
Oh, right, Back to the movie. Overall good stuff. Rent it on Netflix and have a beer or two. And it might teach you something about early American history. Maybe.