THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992) ** 1/2. Directed by Michael Mann. Screenplay by Mann and Christopher Crowe, based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper and the screenplay by Philip Dunne (for the 1936 film version). Cinematography, Dante Spinotti. Editing, Dov Hoenig and Arthur Schmidt. Music, Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman. Production design, Wolf Kroeger. Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Jodhi May, Wes Studi, Maurice Roëves, Patrice Chéreau,Terry Kinney. A 20th Century Fox release. 110 min. Rated R (violence).
The novel by James Fenimore Cooper was standard reading for generations. I remembered it fondly, or at least, I thought I did.
I tried to read it after seeing the film. And I'm still trying but I'm certain I'll give up. A turgidly, tortuously and torturously written opus. How did I get through it at age 8 or 9?
Finally, a half-answer. What I read was the French translation "Le Dernier des Mohicans." I bet that the translator had cleaned up the Cooperisms and Readers Digested the novel.
I am grateful to the movie for bringing back my childhood. And for the child in us, the film is a nice experience. The story, simplified to bare bones and with the endless Cooperian descriptions and dialogues removed, simply deals with the last three Mohicans and their adventures over a short period.
There are two real Mohicans, father Chingachgook and son Uncas, and there's adopted son/brother, a white man, Hawk-eye.
(The new spelling as Hawkeye is wrong. Fenimore Cooper put in the dash to avoid confusion with Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H . He wrote badly but saw far ahead.)
In 1757 the French and the English, forgetting that they will become allies in two World Wars, are fighting each other like mad for their share of North America. Each army has its Indian allies, tribes that fight the Europeans and/or other tribes. Very bloody stuff. It's the subject of the film's first part.
The meat of the movie has Hawk-eye, alias Nathaniel, alias Natty Bumppo (but the film eliminates this silly name), with his pals, escorting a British escort that escorts two real purty sisters, the defeated colonel's daughters, to safety, through my -oh -my what dangerous terrain.
There's a young officer, too, who's sweet on Cora (Stowe), who's sweeted on by Hawk-eye and is reciprocally sweet on him. Hawk-eye's Native American brother Uncas is sweet on the other sister.
Hawk-eye, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is a hunk. He could be called Hunkas to match Uncas. Gimlet-ish eyes and not, I suspect, precisely centered.. Ditto for Stowe's. Two well-matched pairs. But can Hawk-eye shoot! And leap like a deer! It's like the old jingle "Winston tastes good --like a cigarette should." "Hawk-eye runs good -- like a Mohican should."
The movie spreads out to the sounds of Irish-y music -- adagios mostly, tutti sostenuti, like Samuel Barber or Wagner's unending melodies. Makes sense. Non-partisan sounds. Not French, not British, not Indian. Neutral stuff.
I won't go into the gory details of attacks, ambushes, scalpings and other niceties. You can't imagine how accurate the muskets are. Everyone is a dead shot. Hawk-eye never misses, even when shooting on the run, like John Wayne, but he is on foot and schleps two humongous guns. Reloading is faster than with an Uzi.
Danger lurks everywhere, especially with the vengeful Huron named Magua (very well portrayed by real-life Cherokee Wes Studi) who suffers from Huron incontinence, or is it intolerance? Great action and suspense scenes. Courage all over. Sacrifices (self or of others) too. Lotsa guts, some spilled.
This is Hollywood at its best -- and its worst. For the production, save all your superlatives. What landscapes, what photography, what hues, what foliage, what mists! Lavish, sumptuous, glorious, breathtaking sights.
Authentic too it seems. True, what do I know from old forts and old cannon and old encampments? But the makers of the film say it is all painstakingly genuinized. I believe them.
The near-naked bodies are aerobic-lithe, the soldiers' uniforms splendid -- though (and that's a historic fact) idiotically ornate and impractical for warfare. It wasn't until about 1916 that the British and the French saw the light and stopped wearing all that braid and Day-Glo, easy-target colors.
True, the movie perpetuates the Hollywood mystery of uniforms that stay pressed, immaculate, spotless and dustless, even after long sweaty marches in the wilderness. But that's what makes movies so sweet.
The British, we learn by the proof in the pudding, are inept warriors, lousy tacticians. The Indians score four stars. Plus, they're seemingly accurately described, both from the point of view of the historian and political correctness.
The negative side? The side that does not address adults.
No dialogues to speak of, no historical, anthropological, geographic, political, social, explanations or orientation. Most confusing. Muddled narrative. Unclarities. Lack of motivations. No appeal to our curiosity or desire for knowledge. Frustrating. Hey, some audiences do like to think!
No characters developed. For all I care, Hawk-eye could have been played by the Italian Fabio, the hunk who models for covers of dreadful paperback romances and visits the most awful talk shows.
To see? Not to see? By all means go and admire Mother Nature in 1757. She is the movie's center and the movie's alibi.
[Published 23 October 1992]