Michael Mann is known as one of greatest directors of cops and robbers movies that’s ever set foot on a film set, and rightfully so as not only is he responsible for Heat, probably the greatest crime epic of it’s kind, but he also co-created Miami Vice and is responsible for numerous other thrillers such as Manhunter, Collateral and Thief. However, one of Mann’s most accomplished films doesn’t involve urban battlegrounds, slick criminals and heavy uses of firearms (unless you count muskets) as, in 1992, he tackled the genre of high adventure when he decided to update Philip Dunne’s adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s legendary novel.
With no slick cityscapes or the criminal underworld on tap, you could argue that the director was somewhat out of his comfort zone, but instead he launched a cannonball into such expectations to give us something truly special.
It’s 1757 and the French and Indian war is raging and the British is doubling down on fortifying their bases and recruiting people to fight from the local militia. The daughters of Colonel Edmund Munro, Cora and Alice, are being escorted to Fort William Henry by Major Duncan Heyward, who sees his pining for Cora rudely interrupted when their guide, a Mohawk named Magua reveals that he’s actually a Huron in league with the French when he leads to group into a bloody ambush. However, charging out of the woods to save Cora, Alice and Heyward is Mohican warrior Chingachgook, his son, Uncas and his white, adopted son Hawkeye who manage to kill the Huron except Magua and manages to get the survivors to the fort.
On the way, Cora is naturally attracted to the dashing Hawkeye, stirring the green-eyed monster within Heyward and causing friction within the group, but while all this quiet yearning and impotent jaw clenching is going on, Alice and Uncas are also exchanging meaningful glances also.
However, upon reaching and gaining entrance to an under seige Fort William Henry, word has gotten out that the Huron have started attacking the surrounding farms, yet as the British will not let the militiamen leave to protect them as promised, Hawkeye sneaks them out which earns him a date with the noose. However, this is somewhat overshadowed by Munro having to surrender to the French when he finds out no reinforcements are come to aid him and after he and his men are promiced safe passage out, Magua takes this opportunity to try and slaughter them all.
As the relationship between Hawkeye and Cora becomes palpable, fate, war and the blades of vengeful men conspire to keep them apart, but he and his adopted family furiously fight on to restore honor and preserve love.
Despite his illustrious career of law breakers, loot takers and gun wielders, one continuing issue some people have taken with Michael Mann’s output is that his films tend to be rather cold experiences that deal with characters obsessed with being emotionless professionals, however, that theory gets its skull split by a tomahawk with Last Of The Mohicans that proves to be something of a highly emotional experience. Maybe it’s the impossibly lush surroundings, switching Mann’s usual cool blues for impossibly lush greens (seriously, you can almost smell the wet foliage), or maybe it’s the period nature of the piece that instantly stirs feelings of daring-do, but, if we’re being honest, it’s probably the crazy amount of yearning that washes over the story like a tidal wave of pheromones.
Obviously, the chief components are the chemistry between Madeline Stowe’s Cora and Daniel Day Lewis’ Hawkeye (more on him in a minute), but instead of having both characters languish in melodrama, talking their love to death with overly obvious dialogue straight out of a Hallmark special, Mann opts for a less is more approach, using lingering glances and subtle performances to ratchet up the lust to a breathless degree.
All this high romance makes everything else land with style and heightens the experience – the mist hanging in the air, the lazy puffs of smoke that drift into the air after a rifle shot, it falls adds to the air of a thinking person’s romance novel.
Mann’s oddly matter-of-fact approach to elements other directors would over think carries over to the action too, forgoing adolescent swashbuckling in favour of mature, straight forward, yet still unbearably cool, heroics that are impressively blunt and brutal. This brings us to Daniel Day Lewis’ transformative portrayal of Hawkeye, which -lets be honest, here – should be problematic in it’s portrayal of the white saviour trope, and yet both Mann and Lewis take great care to try and display balance with the portrayals of the various Native Americans.
Lest we forget, it was only three years prior that we saw Lewis portraying cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown to Oscar winning effect and in a year hence we’d see him play Gerry Conlon in In The Name Of The Father, so to see him streaking through the woodlands, picking off enemies with a rifle in each hand is truly an impressive sight. The fact that Lewis’ isn’t your typical action bruiser gives Hawkeye gravitas as he peers out from behind his Fabian locks with glances so smoldering they’re in very real danger of causing a forrest fire. However, it’s worth noting that even though Hawkeye is a dab hand at this action stuff, he’s obviously learned everything he knows from his adopted father, the tragic and stoic Chingachgook, who proves to be a controlled engine of destruction in the genuinely heart wrenching climax.
Mann’s stubborn refusal to play by typical action laws gives the movie a thoughtful, almost cruel vibe (the way Uncas and Alice’s burgeoning emotion end is legitimately heartbreaking) that isn’t afraid to get its hand dirty when snapping bones and cracking skulls. Yet despite this grounded approach to the violence, it’s all insanely romantic, with a massive assist to the score provided by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman that manages to merge the more muscular aspects of the flick with anguished declarations of love staged under a roaring waterfall.
Mann’s huge step out of his comfort zone resulted in something special; a movie that was tremendously exciting, while being knee-quivering romantic while never once resorting to cheesy one liners or eyeball rolling action stereotypes to create something heartfelt and noble.