The Last of the Mohicans screened in Chicago on October 26 as part of Doc Films' Michael Mann retrospective.
The auteurist defense of Michael Mann tends to overlook that his creative freedom came only after years of playing by Hollywood's rules and that even his most personal films exist within popular genres. Mann's debt to modern Hollywood is most evident in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), a film whose very conception—a big-budget action movie with specious literary pedigree—reflects the cake-and-eat-it mentality of the latter-day blockbuster. Over and over, it eschews detail that would allow us to better understand character, setting, and conflict in favor of violent action; and often, what remains of the former is perfunctory, and bound to cliché. I can’t attribute these faults entirely to Mann: IMDb reports that his original cut of the film was around three hours and that Twentieth Century Fox rushed him to trim a third of it for theatrical release. What remains is a film propelled by action at the expense of much context—which often makes for frustrating viewing in a film set in 1757.
Granted, the privileging of experience over context has become the foundation of Mann’s greatness as an artist; but in his best work the dogged immediacy seems the result of personal imperative, to understand the pulse of a given moment rather than manufacture it. Compared to the sinuous structure of Heat (1995), in which action grows organically from scenes of contemplation, Last of the Mohicans feels impatient, particularly in its battle-heavy second half. Even on a second viewing, I don’t quite understand why certain tribes of the Six Nations are fighting alongside the French and others with the British—or, for that matter, why the French and British are fighting with each other (and this in spite of an introductory title saying it's for “control of the continent”). The first half of the movie is more satisfying in its sense of place, of how lives were lived in the before the French and Indian War. There are traces here of how Mann’s scholastic level of research could have produced a very different historical epic—in which narrative consistently yields to minute observation. But as in other truncated historical films—The Magnificent Ambersons, Gangs of New York, Rossellini’s Vanina Vanini—the epic is routinely sacrificed for spectacle.
Thankfully, the spectacle of Last of the Mohicans is not relegated to warfare. The cinematography is consistently breathtaking—providing greater insight to the era of James Fenimore Cooper, I'd argue, than Mann's adaptation of the story proper. Essentially an invocation of American Romantic paintings popular around the time Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans (1830 or so), it often suggests an action movie as it would have been imagined then. The Romantic sensibility isn’t apparent only in the landscape shots—redolent of Thomas Cole—but in the interior scenes as well, which are equally suggestive of a divine presence in worldly affairs. One scene around the middle of the film, when the Mohicans recount an earlier massacre of the British troops, is a marvel of composition: an empty space in the center of the frame is lit as if by halo, and the Mohicans stand in shadow on the right, their tan skin and clothing blended with the muted light. This could well be the recreation of a forgotten Romantic painting titled The Meeting of the British and Mohicans—just as many paintings of the Romantic era seem to anticipate the grandeur of Hollywood epics. (The touring exhibition of major Romantic paintings, such as Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, also anticipates the way Hollywood epics were distributed from Birth of a Nation through roughly the early 60s.)
In a sense, the relative simplicity of the characters is totally in keeping with the look of the film—and leave it to Mann to conceive of characters based on their function in a visual aesthetic. Most of the characters are defined by a steadfast sense of duty uncomplicated by the doubt that tends to make Mann’s heroes neurotic. The notable exception is Steven Waddington’s Colonel Heyward, the heroine’s fiancé, treated as disposable from the outset in the worst tradition of American action movies. Along with the macho one-liners delivered, unconvincingly, by Daniel Day-Lewis in his confrontations with the British army, this convention reflects Mann’s greatest weakness as a filmmaker—a passive reliance on genre to move a story ahead when he needs to. In his defense, though, Mann rarely attempts to award these conventions greater significance than they deserve. He treats them generally as narrative placeholders, to clarify certain elements of a character—in the case of Hawkeye’s Die Hard-like one-liners, we intuit a stoic, independent streak that would otherwise require lengthy monologues.
And yet these failures of psychology allow us to commune with the period much like the cinematography does. The novels of Cooper's era—the second generation of their kind in the English-speaking world—were uncertain of how to record a story. In the novels of Daniel Defoe, for instance, there’s a great effort to couch the narrative in journalistic fact (such as the actual death tolls that pop up in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year), as though readers needed evidence of the story’s relevance. There are parallels to this approach in Mann’s films—and, indeed, it helps to explain what makes his art so valuable. Casting real Chicago cops in Thief is one example of his need for evidence; ditto most of his depictions of police procedure. The scenes of guerilla warfare in Last of the Mohicans have a similar quality: note how carefully these scenes cut from the Mohawks hiding on one side of the British troops to those on the other, the way they isolate the first, secretive tomahawk blow before returning to silence. The fate of the characters here, as in Mann’s greatest films, is linked to competing strategies of action. (It’s telling of the film’s shortcomings, however, that once the battle sequences are underway, we never see anyone pack a musket. In the name of pacing, guns are simply fired and discarded, as in a Richard Donner movie.) And these strategies must be intuited by symptom, sensation, suggestion.
As usual for Mann, suggestion is the height of artistry, and Last of the Mohicans has fitful evidence of Mann's genius. A short early scene that shows the Mohicans dining with a colonial family after hunting intimates a fully organized utopian community of colonials and Native Americans. (This could have come across as forced political correctness, but Mann’s sense of detail—Namely, how the conversation is built around a shared professional language about hunting and selling game—makes it seem plausible.) The obstinacy of European armies—which will make them vulnerable to the Indians' guerilla tactics—is charted through the careful alignment of soldiers during early scenes of diplomacy. But most remarkable about Mann's adaptation is that we don’t learn of Hawkeye’s adoption by the Mohicans until roughly half-way through the movie—and we don’t learn why his nemesis Magua is so bent on revenge with the British until even later. These mysteries, which elide the central motivation for the story's major characters, seem characteristic of Mann and hint at what we could have gotten from his three-hour cut—a film whose focus moved gradually between character and history, with the two converging at points of iconography that encompassed both.