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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Throwback Thursday - The Last of the Mohicans

The Last of the Mohicans: Director's Definitive Cut [Blu-ray]

Note:  Throwback Thursdays is a weekly column in which I will take an in-depth look at films of the past.  A movie can be chosen for any reason, the only rule is that it has to be at least one year old.  If you have any suggestions of movies you’d like to see in the future please leave a comment and let me know.
Most movies coming out of Hollywood are so simplistic that they can be easily summed up in one sentence (or even less).  The Last of the Mohicans is not one of those movies.  It is a story of the French and Indian War told with the immediacy of a contemporary expose; it presents its characters and details with an almost obsessive level of authenticity, yet allows their narrative to take on a myth-like structure; it contains rousing action yet has deep socio-political undercurrents.  The Last of the Mohicans isn’t some puddle deep blockbuster, but a piece of art looking at a complicated moment in history with a layered and complex point of view.

All you have to do to begin to appreciate the thought that went into the movie is to consider its cinematography.  Director Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) and Cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential, Public Enemies) create a painterly appearance to the film inspired by landscape painters of the 1800’s like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstandt.  What is so striking about taking inspiration from this classical perspective is that it allows them to not only establish the grandeur and reality of the untouched wilderness, but they need never shy away from creating clearly staged compositions.  Part of the reality of the time period is created with the illusion of source lighting.  This is not a film bathed in artificial light where you can clearly see every corner of the frame; it is a film of depth created with shadow and fog.  Despite the appearance of realistic lighting, the shots are composed to be as beautiful as possible.  It isn’t just interesting photographic choices that reveal this balancing act, it is apparent throughout the entire film.  
  One of the important things about Michael Mann as a filmmaker is that everything which appears within his frame has a story.  Whether you are discussing extras, costumes or even sets; he creates an all encompassing reality for his characters to live in.  He was so concerned with the authenticity of the Native American’s dress and weaponry that he brought in experts from the Smithsonian Institute to advise.  When it came to the European infantry and artillery units he had dozens of extras attend a boot camp in Alabama to train as a military unit from the 1600’s would have.  This reality wasn’t just reserved for the actors but extended to the sets as well.  In fact, “set” may be a bit of a misnomer as they could be more accurately called replicas.  All the sets were constructed on site in the middle of the wilderness.  Areas were cleared of trees for the construction and then were built with the removed local timber just as they would have been hundreds of years ago.  Despite this strict adherence and respect to the reality of the times, Mann crafts a narrative that is almost operatic in its execution. This isn’t a movie that shies away from grand pure emotions.  What keeps it from becoming corny is that the emotion is always sincere and earned.  This sincerity allows for a film with sets, costumes and lighting as real as if they were from the 1600’s, to be told with a sweeping, heroic, tragic and romantic style.     
Michael Mann is one of the few film-makers that can bring these disparate strands together.  It has become a theme of his personal style to do so.  Look at his film Public Enemies as an example.  He takes a historical event from the early 20th century, and shoots as if a documentarian with a digital camera was in the room at the time; yet he never shies away from making sure every epic moment of Dillinger’s life is noted, whether real or exaggerated.  This type of film-making reminds me of how David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue) said he writes screenplays based on historical events.  His process is to do as much research as he possibly can on the subject he is writing about.  Once he feels like he has learned every little detail he walks away for a period of weeks or sometimes months.  When he finally does begin writing he feels that he will retain what is essential and not be overly precious with details that are not.  Or as John Ford (The Searchers, The Grapes of Wrath) said, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend”.  This is exactly what Mann does in The Last of the Mohicans; he creates an incredibly authentic world but allows “the legend” to be printed in order to create emotion to coincide with history.  His immersion of the cast in this staged reality helps them to create an emotional truth which comes from a real place rather than just convention.
Although Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood) is known as an actor who thrives in an environment in which he is able immerse himself in the world of his character, it seemed a bit of an odd choice to cast this son of poets as the great trapper Hawkeye.  He was fresh off his Oscar win for his performance in My Left Foot, but it’s hard to imagine two parts more different from one another.  Yet just like his character Hawkeye, Day-Lewis steeped himself in the world of the Native American.  He spent months training in the wilderness to learn the skills of a survivalist.  He learned to hunt, skin, build fires, track, shoot, fight and even load a single shot black powder rifle while running.  All of this training couldn’t help but to inform his character and give him the confidence that he was never faking it.  This allowed Day-Lewis to concentrate of the emotional journey of Hawkeye rather than be worried about the technical skills he was performing.   
Every person who appears in this film is a character, there are no one-dimensional stand-ins.  Through the casting of great actors, dialogue often wasn’t needed to convey story or emotion.  Take the case of Uncas and Alice Munroe siblings to our romantic leads.  These two characters have little to no dialogue in the film(let alone with each other) yet by the end of the movie it is of paramount importance that we understand exactly who they are and the relationship they have with one another.  Eric Schweig (Big Eden, The Missing) and Jodhi May (Defiance) develop these characters and relationships through the use of facial expression and presence alone.  Madeline Stowe (Twelve Monkeys, Short Cuts) while having more screen time is equally effective as Cora.  She gives a multi-layered performance that allows us to see a gorgeous woman of class who also possesses intelligence and a fierce sense of independence.  We never question that a self reliant man like Hawkeye could fall instantly in love with her, yet she is never reduced to being simply a maiden in need of rescuing.
 The one performance looming over the entire film was that of Russell Means (Pocahontas, Natural Born Killers).  What is truly amazing is that this was Mean’s acting debut.  Previous to Mann seeking him out to play the part of Chingachgook he was a political activist.  By the end of filming was he not only an actor capable of fulfilling the role of the titular “Last Mohican” but he was able to create a character that embodied the pure Native American culture that was passing into oblivion at the time.  Serving as counterpoint to Chingachgook was the villain Magua.  Magua as portrayed by Wes Studi (Geronimo, Avatar) wasn’t a one dimensional villain; he had a point of view and reason for becoming who he was.  In Magua’s mind he was the hero of the picture striking out at the unjust authority of the white man.  Just as Chingagook becomes representative of the traditional Native American way of life, Magua was the personification of the argument that Native peoples must adapt to the ways of their intruders in order to survive. Magua wanted to change and adapt, “become what warped him”.
It needs to be appreciated that despite the film being made in the 1990’s by the Hollywood system, it does not simplify the Native American experience of the European invasion to a modern white perspective.  The movie and its treatment of Native Americans isn’t through the prism of guilt looking back.  It also doesn’t give us the “noble savage” who closeness to nature gives him a natural moral superiority to the proprietary western man.  This is a film that attempts to look at the deep and complicated sociopolitical climate at the time and see it from their perspective.  This was a conflict with numerous sides from the English, French, Iroquois, Huron, Mohawk and more; there were no simple solutions to anything.  The question to the native peoples at the time was, "what are we to do"?  Do they hold on to the past like the Mohicans, keep their traditions and slowly fade away?  Or do they change and become like the white men and abandon what defined them, but allow them to survive.  Despite these undercurrents with regard to the nature of land ownership, war and way of life, The Last of the Mohicans remains as rousing an adventure/action film as you are likely to find.
If I were to try and list off the greatest action climaxes in movie history the last 20 minutes of The Last of the Mohicans would appear very early on my list.  From the moment the Huron chief makes his ruling until Hawkeye and Cora embrace; the film just ratchets up the action, music and drama more and more until it reaches an honest and amazing crescendo.  One of the things I love about this sequence is that as action packed as it is, it is all based on the emotion and motivation of the various characters.  It isn’t simply action for actions sake; it serves as the resolution to each characters arc.  Everyone gets their resolution and chance at heroism.  The Last of the Mohicans is a film that stirs the soul.  It isn’t often that we get movies that are equally visceral and intellectually satisfying.  The Last of the Mohicans is one of those rare gems. 

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