Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Signal Watch Watches: Last of the Mohicans (1992)

If you've seen this movie, what you'll primarily remember is Daniel Day-Lewis running around the woods outside of Asheville, North Carolina with a musket in one hand and a hatchet in the other.  That's because this is the movie about the toughest long distance runner to ever cross the screen.

I've tried to read the book of Last of the Mohicans at least twice and wasn't able to get past the period prose, so maybe it's time to try again.  The movie is a pretty interesting look into a corner of the seemingly interminable French Indian War that preceded the Revolutionary War by more than a decade, and lays the groundwork for why colonists would have bucked a bit at the yolk of their British lords.

he's running at you before you even start the movie

Director Michael Mann is far better known for his stylish noir cop movies and TV shows like Miami Vice, Heat and Manhunter, but he applies his same eye for detail and what has often been visual oddity turned to wide shots and stills that echo American master painters (see: Hudson River School, including Cole's "Scene from the Last of the Mohicans") covering the pre-industrialized landscape.  Mann got the difference between the controlled world of the British and their utter lack of understanding of the frontier itself, the settlers who'd chosen to carve out new lives in the unknown, and the lives of the natives they were so disrupting.  Mann keeps all of that in play, and Daniel Day-Lewis's Hawkeye is an excellent counterbalance for all these forces as the unlikely white child raised by natives.

now he's running over there...
The film is often brutal, not putting a romantic spin on either European-style warfare of the time with its rules of engagement (the surrender of Munro is handled a bit how you read these surrenders taking place between respectable gentlemen), and gets downright grim when the British troops amble into the guerrila-style tactics of the natives.  Hatchet swinging and musket firing can be some nasty business.  And, folks, this is how we carved up the East Coast.

still running

Mostly people remember Day-Lewis from this movie, and Madeline Stowe, but it's one of those movies where it never really feels like anyone misses a beat, including Wes Studi as the vengeance-driven Maqua.  The actual two last Mohicans, played by Russell Means and Eric Schweig, carry their scenes despite the shift to sub-titles and having to perform against a script that heavily favors Hawkeye as the main character.  And we all remember Alice pitching herself off the cliff and Duncan going up as crispy critters - and making you care enough about the characters that the deaths mean something.

It's not a flawless movie, and you can criticize it for the occasionally basking in its melodrama, but I still like it.  It'd been way too long since I'd had a chance to see this one.

Also, I need to get myself one of those hammer/ axe things Chingachgook carries.  That thing would definitely change the tone of my meetings at work.


J.S. said...

It's funny- I've talked to a number of guys over the years who seemed to think that this movie was just some sort of lightweight romance about Danile Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe gazing at each other dreamily in their frontier clothes. I think if they knew that it's got more shootin' and scalpin' than sighin' and smoochin' than there might be more people who would've been willing to give it a chance. This was the first movie that really made me realize that colonial fighting, especially involving Native Americans, must have been a horribly ugly mess.

The League said...

I don't know if I've encountered that, but I haven't talked about the movie much since 1992 or 93. But, yeah, it definitely made me take a step back in 1992 and realize "oh, yeah... hatchets to the head are a pretty rough way to go..."