MOVIE REVIEW : Hair-Raising ‘Mohicans’


“The Last of the Mohicans” comes at you like a tomahawk. Hard, fast and brutal, it slashes at your throat and just about leaves you for dead. Undeniably exciting as this definitely is, however, its impact comes at the expense of some of the gentler virtues, qualities that even top-drawer barn-burners really shouldn’t ignore.

Director Michael Mann, executive producer of “Miami Vice” and responsible for such excellent but little-seen features as “Thief” and “Manhunter,” is a filmmaker of considerable gifts. His movies are so supercharged with intensity and feeling they just about quiver with excitement, leaving us to wonder at how much juice he has been able to squeeze out of thematically familiar material.

Starring a lean and steely-eyed Daniel Day-Lewis, “The Last of the Mohicans” is unashamedly based more on the Randolph Scott-starring 1936 version than the original James Fenimore Cooper novel (to which it bears no more than a fondly distant relationship). It takes place in 1757 during the French and Indian Wars, when those two sides united in an attempt to drive the British, who had tribal allies of their own, out of the North American continent.


Set on what was then the frontier of Upstate New York (and filmed in the old-growth forests of North Carolina), “Mohicans” (citywide) is filled from the opening shot with spectacular natural vistas. Working with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Mann has given this film the look of an old-fashioned big-screen epic, grandly taking in everything from thunderous waterfalls to silent leafy glades.

The look is not the only thing old-fashioned on the screen. For Mann’s “Mohicans” is awash with such tried and true frontier moments as savvy scouts staring intently at footprints and wily American Indians leaping out of ambush with literally hair-raising intentions. Honor and treachery, savagery and self-sacrifice--in fact the whole panoply of Saturday matinee emotions has been remarkably adrenalized and given a new and vigorous lease on life.

Also pumped up to new heights are the battle scenes no self-respecting epic can do without. Fluidly shot and crisply edited (by Dov Hoenig and Arthur Schmidt) these are models of mayhem, so chaotic and savage they just about stop you from breathing. Mann’s widely publicized mania for unwavering historical accuracy, which overall gives “Mohicans” an invaluable sense of reality, also ensures that the scalp-seeking savagery of the times is unflinchingly presented. This makes for vivid and startling filmmaking, but let the squeamish beware.

Though he hardly fits into that category, Nathanael Poe, a.k.a. Hawkeye (the protean Day-Lewis) initially feels all this bloodshed has nothing to do with him. Colonial born but raised as the adopted son of Mohican chief Chingachgook (activist-turned-actor Russell Means), Nathanael is intent only on hunting and moving on to the greener pastures of a land he solemnly calls “Ken-tuck-ee.”

But across his path comes the comely foot of Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), daughter of a stuffy British colonel, love interest of a priggish British major, owner of the only low-cut gown on the entire frontier, and a woman with very definite ideas of her own. The pair meet while she and her sister are on their way to join their father in threatened Ft. William Henry. And, after the inevitable cross-cultural spat, and despite having exchanged more smoldering glances of soulful longing than actual words, these proud representatives of two different worlds fall as deeply, intoxicatingly and immediately in love as only people who live wide-screen lives manage to do.

Silly as this sounds, silly as it in fact is, there is also no denying that, thanks to the skill and chemistry of the actors involved, this most contrived scenario plays quite well on screen. Stowe, last seen in “Unlawful Entry,” seems to be making a career of bringing more life to stilted parts than they have any right to, and she does it again here, turning Cora into the kind of feisty firebrand a no-nonsense guy like Hawkeye would appreciate.


As for Daniel Day-Lewis, he proves once again that he is one of those chameleons who can play absolutely anything with complete conviction. Having immersed himself so deeply in preparation that he became, or so we are told, one of four men in the known world who can reload a flintlock rifle at a full run, Lewis now possesses frontier skills on a par with Daniel Boone’s and he looks it. With shoulder-length hair, a profile like an ax and a glance borrowed from X, the Man With X-Ray Eyes, he beautifully creates a romantic character while hardly using any words at all.

And it is words, those pesky little things, that “Mohicans” (not surprisingly rated R for violence) has the most trouble with. Diverting as Cora and Hawkeye’s MTV relationship is, it would be improved if it didn’t feel so rushed, if the script hadn’t neglected to provide these characters with sufficient emotional grounding for us to connect with them on any but the most superficial level. And, despite the longest credit line in memory (by Mann and Christopher Crowe, based on the novel and the 1936 screenplay by Philip Dunne, adaptation by John L. Balderson and Paul Perez and Daniel Moore), that script is problematical in other areas as well.

Though its save-the-women-from-the-savages plot is clear in broad outline, much of the expository detail is confusing or unclear. Though it creates one splendid villain in the Huron warrior Magua (thanks to the intense, focused performance of Wes Studi, who had a similar role in “Dances With Wolves”), its other characters are no more than one-dimensional. And though it is fairly ambitious thematically, seeking to show that this war prefigured the later one for American independence, its ear for dialogue is very much on the stilted side, with lines like “You forget yourself, sir” and “They hack their lives out of the wilderness without so much as a by-your-leave” being more in evidence than not.

Though these difficulties may seem like no more than a mote in God’s eye, it remains a shame that a film that offers so much can’t deliver even more. If the powers that be had worried a fraction as much about the words coming out of the characters’ mouths as they apparently did about the clothes on their backs and the weapons in their hands, none of this would have been a problem.

‘The Last of the Mohicans’

Daniel Day-Lewis: Hawkeye

Madeleine Stowe: Cora

Russell Means: Chingachgook

Eric Schweig: Uncas

Jodhi May: Alice

Released by 20th Century Fox. Director Michael Mann. Producers Michael Mann, Hunt Lowry. Executive producer James G. Robinson. Screenplay Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe, based upon the novel by James Fenimore Cooper and the screenplay by Philip Dunne, adaptation by John L. Balderson and Paul Perez and Daniel Moore. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Editors Dov Hoenig, Arthur Schmidt. Costumes Elsa Zamparelli. Music Trevor Jones, Randy Edelman. Production design Wolf Kroeger. Art directors Richard Holland, Robert Guerra. Set decorators Jim Erickson, James V. Kent. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (language).