This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.
I’m not sure that I ever saw this film at the cinema, but ever since I first saw it so many years ago, probably on VHS, it’s a film to which I’ve constantly returned. It’s not necessarily the period setting and the many historical details that get me, though I concede these are well co-ordinated, it’s that The Last of the Mohicans is a shameless (and why feel shame?), epic romantic melodrama that pulls all the right strings in me. Call it manipulative, but in the best way. So having picked this as a random film to watch, I shall try to do a little bit of justice to how I feel about it. The one thing I won’t be doing is comparing it to the source novel, for I’ve never read it and I may never get round to it: the space in my life reserved for caring about Uncas and Chingachgook and Nathaniel Hawkeye and Cora Munro is amply sated by re-watching this film, and by now I’d probably just assess the novel negatively in comparison.
When the film came out, I seem to recall it being a matter of wide discussion how much effort it — and particularly its lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis — had gone to in researching the historical details. The usual stories that accompany your ‘method’ actors. Perhaps some of it was true, perhaps some of it was just feeding the legend. As it happens, I’m not a paid-up member of the cult of Mr Day-Lewis, which seems to bear similarity to that around Meryl Streep. He’s still a star actor, and however deep he goes into a role, he’s always that famous actor playing that famous role. Here, as Hawkeye, he is lanky and pale, an awkward misfit sticking out from his co-stars because he’s Daniel Day-Lewis, but that works perfectly for the character, who is not comfortably part of any culture.
Around him is marshalled all the pomp and brutality of the Seven Years’ War — surely one of the first truly ‘world wars’ — here fought between French and English on American soil, recruiting Native Americans of various tribes to each side’s cause. But pre-dating independence, there is no real patriotic side to support, so the story cannily focuses on Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ and his fellow poor frontiersfolk. Hawkeye, having been brought up by a Mohican father, Chingachgook (played by Russell Means), limns the divide between the two largely antagonistic cultures, and suffers recriminations from both sides. He is eyed suspiciously by the Huron when he goes to make peace with Magua, just as he is treated with barely-disguised condescension by Colonel Munro on the English side. Nevertheless, he prevails because his calling is always a greater one: the love he feels towards Colonel Munro’s daughter Cora (played by Madeleine Stowe), the duty of care towards his father and brother Uncas, his sparring with the petulant Major Duncan Hayward (Steven Waddington) — who is also in love with Cora — and his enmity towards the traitorous Magua (Wes Studi), whose object is the obliteration of the Munro family. All the film’s emotions are passionately felt and rousingly marshalled.
This is the end to which all of director Michael Mann’s skill is put, ensuring the film doesn’t slow down for anything so banal as mere exposition. Dialogues are never spoken between two characters when they can be declaimed. It’s not so much the exchange of facts as deeply-held feelings that are the subject of the characters’ interactions. What we do glean about the conflict is not spelled out and the film is all the better for that. For example, there’s an early role for Jared Harris on horseback imperiously demanding the subjection of the frontier dwellers to the English cause, and though he is a character set up so as to be openly mocked by Nathaniel, we get a sense of what’s at stake for the settlers. Or else there’s General Webb recounting the tactical situation on the front lines as part of an extended personal joke with his second-in-command at the expense of French sybaritic indolence. When the film does slow down for a quiet moment, the air is pregnant with the conflicts to come — a coach crossing a bridge between two warring worlds, a broken branch on the trail that leads to Hawkeye’s kidnapped sweetheart, or the water lapping listlessly at the crest of a massive waterfall (this latter moment being the least ‘realistic’, intercut as it is with stock footage of a roaring crescendo of water clearly not in the same space).
The chief co-conspirator to the film’s rousing romance is not so much the actors (though they are all excellent) as the musical soundtrack, composed largely by Trevor Jones with help from Randy Edelman. The string-laden theme takes its influences from traditional folk music, and in fact moves more purely into this idiom at the most heightened moments, taking on a urgent percussive quality, whenever Nathaniel is pursuing some perilous adventure — which means it’s heard often, particularly in the last half-hour of the film. The strings are yearning and evocative but never quite descend to gloopy sentimentality, even when the staging most suggests this quality — Nathaniel and Cora embracing one another in profile against the sunrise, for example.
The film is filled with excesses of this kind, little flourishes of pure melodrama and Boy’s Own adventure heroics. It’s against this background that it needs to be assessed, not as a naturalistic depiction of 18th century combat (though there is that) or the difficulty of living on the frontiers of such a dangerously young country (and that’s there too). I could affect ironic distance, but the film works too hard to break it down. It’s the kind of film you either wholeheartedly and passionately embrace, or you laugh off as inconsequential fluff. I trust, though, that I’ve made my own position clear.
Director Michael Mann; Writers Mann and Christopher Crowe (based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper); Cinematographer Dante Spinotti; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi, Steven Waddington; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 8 August 2013 (and on plenty of occasions previously).