|Last of the Mohicans, The (Director's Extended Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 23 January 2001|
This beautiful, action-packed epic is the best movie version of James Fenimore Cooper's classic novel, even though Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe based their screenplay on that of Philip Dunne for the very good 1936 version. A lot of 1990s attitudes have been added, occasionally intrusively, but mostly the film is a refreshing and inventive blend of the modern and the old fashioned.
It's been given a good-looking transfer on DVD with excellent Dolby 5.1 sound -- your equipment will probably make it sound better than it did in half the theaters it played in. Rich, expansive, realistic but stylized, the superb soundtrack brings the great outdoors of pre-Revolutionary America into your front room. Larry Kemp was the supervising sound editor, while Doug Hemphill, Chris Jenkins, Simon Kaye and Mark Smith shared the Oscar for sound for this film.
'The Last of the Mohicans' was directed by Michael Mann, who becomes so involved in each successive movie that he's directed relatively few; the only two he's done since 'Mohicans' were 'Heat' and 'The Insider.' He has a great eye for beauty, and actors seem to respond to his guidance, but his greatest talent is evidently in the area of staging action. The street shootout in 'Heat' is brilliantly done, and the various battle scenes in 'Mohicans' are excellent as well. Particularly unnerving is the sequence in which Hurons rush out of the woods one by one to hack away at British soldiers. It's as if they're ghosts, avenging specters, fearlessly and imperviously launching individual attacks before their compatriots attack en masse.
Mann is good with passion, too; we can see Daniel Day-Lewis, as Nathaniel (sometimes called Hawkeye), and Madeleine Stowe falling in love with very little dialog. This is even more true of Uncas (Eric Schweig), Hawkeye's Mohican brother, falling in love with Cora's sister Alice (Jodhi May); they hardly exchange a word -- and yet we know they are drawn to one another.
Mann's weakness is his tendency toward pomposity; all of his movies seem to be about Very Big Issues, and he wants us to know they are about Very Big Issues. He doesn't seem to have a sense of humor, other than the very Manly Man, punch-on-the-shoulder variety; he needs to relax, and to allow his characters to relax. (You have to wonder how he'll deal with his current project in this regard; it's a biopic about Muhammad Ali, who had a great sense of humor.)
In 'Mohicans,' the French are making inroads into upstate New York, battling with the British along the way. Far wiser in the ways of the wilderness than the staid British, the French have formed an alliance with the Hurons, who act as their scouts and sometimes as their soldiers -- while carrying on their own war, aimed as much at settlers as at the British soldiers. Colonials are just beginning to have a sense of their own identities; the basis of the American Revolution is being formed during this French and Indian War.
Uncas, Hawkeye and their father Chingachgook (Russell Means), the last of the Mohican tribe, sometimes work as scouts for the British, but Hawkeye really wants to head off for "Kain Tuck Kee," where there's more elbow room. He's the very embodiment of the frontier, leather-clad, a skilled hunter, and with his eyes on the Western horizon. The three of them reluctantly agree to accompany some British soldiers, led by Major Heyward (Steven Waddington), to Fort William Henry, to join Cora and Alice with their father Col. Edmund Munro (Maurice Roëves), commandant of the fort.
But along the way, they're attacked by Hurons, who've already wiped out a family of settlers we met early in the film; the only survivors are Hawkeye, the two Mohicans, Cora, Alice and Heyward. And when they reach Fort William Henry, they discover it's under siege by French and Indian forces.
The movie actually has a very slender plot: Hawkeye and friends go to the fort, stay at the fort a while, then escape, to be captured by the Hurons. The aftermath of their capture is brief, tragic but triumphant.
You don't really watch this movie for the plot, but for the sweeping romanticism, a view of America's past, and the fury of the battles. It's surprisingly brutal and gruesome at times -- after all these battles were fought with hard-to-reload long rifles, tomahawks and sabres.
Dante Spinotti, who also photographed 'Manhunter' for Mann, is one of the world's greatest cameramen, and his skills are on magnificent display here. It's hard to believe that this film really was made entirely in the United States -- there are endless forested hills stretching off to the farthest horizon, unspoiled meadows, trackless forests.
The sound team fully deserved their Oscar. As with all his films, Mann paid intensely close interest to the sound; as a result, there's a vastness to the sound itself. We get a sense of open spaces and unspoiled wilderness through our ears as much as we do through our eyes. The deep-toned thud of cannon fire shakes our sternums; the sounds of tomahawks crushing skulls is gruesomely realistic. If you're the sort of home-theater owner who prizes films with imaginative sound, rather than the sort who just wants window-rattling LOUD sounds, this film could prove a revelation.
The music is principally by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones; instead of going for action-movie scoring, they've followed the lead of the panoramic cinematography and created a lush, sweeping score that progresses by huge movements, sometimes scoring in opposition to the images.
The cast is excellent. Cooper's hyper-romantic view of Hawkeye is tempered down to something approaching realism by Daniel Day-Lewis' thoughtful but dynamic approach to the role. He's not a frontier superhero, a grandiose view of Natural Man, he's a regular guy who happens to be a great frontiersman.
The Hurons and Mohicans are played by real Indians, including American Indian activist Russell Means, who's a dignified but energetic Chingachgook. The most riveting performance by an Indian, however, is Wes Studi as the villain of the piece, Magua, Huron warrior with a good reason to hate the British. Studi is essentially expressionless throughout the movie, but his strong physical presence and command of gesture and nuance brings Magua to life. It's a great performance.
The DVD includes no extras at all, but the print is the "Director's Expanded Edition," really only a few minutes longer than the theatrical print. On the scene selection menu, the scenes with new footage are marked, but the actual additions are not specified. Fortunately, these are available on the movie's site on the Internet Movie Database. The additional scenes are scattered throughout the movie, and don't really seem to add too much to the film overall. Means' speech at the end goes on longer in this edition, but it's not better.
'The Last of the Mohicans' misses being a great movie because of Mann's usual tendency toward pompousness, and because the efforts at updating the story sometimes stand out in stark relief against the essential simplicity of the story -- and most of the characters, if truth be told. But it's a grand entertainment nonetheless, with vivid action scenes, and a real sense of North America as it was before "civilization" got to it.