Directed by Michael Mann.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Wes Studi, Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Steven Waddington, Pete Postlethwaite, Colm Meaney and Jodhi May.
In 1757, North America is the battleground of the colonial powers of Britain and France. Midst the escalating conflict, three trappers from a nearly extinct Native Indian tribe protect the daughters of a British Colonel.
For his fourth theatrical effort, acclaimed director Michael Mann collaborated with Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor more infamous than himself for extensive research methods. Released in 1992, The Last of the Mohicans was a period action-adventure tonic that delighted film critics and movie audiences alike. To prepare for his leading role of Hawkeye, Day-Lewis lived in the wilderness; he hunted and fished for several months before shooting commenced on the eighth feature film adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel. Interestingly, Michael Mann never read the book; instead he used the screenplay of the 1936 version as his source material.
In order to get approval from Twentieth Century-Fox, Mann required the support of Joe Roth (Fox Chairman) and Roger Birnbaum (President of Worldwide Production). The filmmaker’s approach was simple and straightforward. “I'd acquired the rights to Philip Dunne's 1936 screenplay myself,” he explained, “had done a story outline based on it, and walked into their offices and basically said, 'Guys, I want to do Last of the Mohicans and I want to do it in a vivid, realistic way. They said 'Yeah, great idea.'”
The director drew inspiration from a childhood experience. “I saw the movie when I was a kid,” the Chicago native revealed. “It occurred to me recently that it may have been the first film I saw that made an impression on me. It was after the war, around 1948 or 1949, when I was four or five years old. There was a church in my neighborhood, about a block away, and they used to show 16mm films in the basement - and they showed the 1936 version with Randolph Scott as Hawkeye. I remember the tragedy of Uncas and Alice at the end, plus I remember the fearsomeness of Magua, and the uniqueness of the period. I couldn't identify what was so fascinating then, but I can now - it's the combination of three discrete and very exciting cultures in the same motion picture, which happens to be a tightly-plotted war movie. One is the extremely formal culture of the European ruling class. Secondly, even Magua in the 1936 movie was an expression of a fascinating Native American, northeastern woodlands culture of Hurons and Mohawks, men with their heads shaved and tattoos. Thirdly, the familiar image of the frontiersmen - Hawkeye, incidentally, is the progenitor of all the American western heroes in a direct evolutionary line from Last of the Mohicans through Stagecoach to My Darling Clementine.”
Mann ignored the novel and used the screenplay for a very particular reason. “Because it's a terrific piece of writing,” he remarked. “Dunne did a very interesting thing. He was writing at a time of tremendous political struggle in the United States, a country caught in a depression and at the same time seeing events in Asia and Europe. The view here was isolationist, although some people with political agendas saw the need to take part in international struggles against the rising tide of fascism. Also, there was a heavy dose of anti-British sentiment among the isolationists, led by the Chicago Tribune. Dunne essentially gave Hawkeye the political attitudes of the isolationists: independent, anti-authoritarian...anti-British. But then at the end of the movie in 1936, both men - Hawkeye the proto-American individualist, and Heyward - both in love with Cora, march off to war together to face a greater common enemy.”
For a cinematic storyteller known for portraying the cat and mouse game between criminals and law enforcement officers, a period movie where adversaries fire muskets rather than automatic weapons might seem out of place. “The project's attraction lies in making a passionate and vivid love story in a war zone,” remarked the director. “To make that period feel real means making dramatic forces out of the political forces of this time, which also fascinated me. The politics are functional to the storytelling, as is the visual style. I didn't want to take 1757, this story, and turn it into some kind of two-dimensional metaphor for 1991. What I did want to do was go the other way and take our understanding of those cultures - and I think we understand them better today than Cooper did in 1826 - and use our contemporary perspective as a tool to construct a more intense experience of realistically complex people in a complex time.”
As he went about producing the film, Michael Mann made an interesting discovery. “In researching the period I found that events in 1757 moved as fast as in 1968. And suddenly this period became as alive to me as, say, seven or eight years ago.” The moviemaker went on to add. “Ultimately, for me, it's about trying to make Hawkeye as real as if I was writing and directing a picture about a man who is alive today. The big encounter in the movie is between Hawkeye and Cora Munro, effectively a meeting of people from two different planets. It's a collision between the child of Scottish-Irish immigrants - people who were probably impoverished tenant farmers from the borderlands in the north of England - and a woman who thinks she's going to New England - almost an extension of Grosvenor Square - only to discover that this is a vast new continent, and that attitudinal changes and ideas are sweeping across it.”
There was a major creative issue which needed to be addressed. “The big challenge for me,” stated Mann, “was to work that Cora-Hawkeye story into a tapestry of a full-blown war, with three other conflicts going on at the same time. As it becomes a romance I hope the audience will track with the romance and want it to survive. This woman goes through a great change and so does Hawkeye, but for him it's a transformation from being a Mohican to becoming a frontiersman - a synthesis of the European and native cultures - which is a transformation from son to man. Chingachgook realizes this before Hawkeye does and talks to him about it at the end of the film.”
The Last of the Mohicans trailer:
Mann Handled: A Michael Mann Profile
A Michael Mann Retrospective
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.
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