Between the masterpieces Manhunter (1986) and Heat (1995), director Michael Mann made The Last Of The Mohicans (1992). Mann teamed with fellow Miami Vice director Christopher Crowe to pen the screenplay for The Last Of The Mohicans with the aim of re-imagining the 1936 film and 1826 novel for the post-revisionist western age. Mann’s intent with The Last Of The Mohicans was to re-tell the story with a greater compassion for the portrayal of the indigenous people that also incorporated the a more historically accurate production design.
Like James Cameron and Ridley Scott, Mann envisioned a classically romantic Hollywood epic that would meet the standards of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975); cinematographically as well as with regards to a fidelity to history. To that end The Last Of The Mohicans, photographed by Dante Spinotti, looks incredible. However, Mann’s technical perfectionism cannot add dimension to the plot nor characters of The Last Of The Mohicans who move and feel with bombastic gestures and an aching sentimentality. For more than either Scott nor Cameron, Mann’s vision is deeply rooted in the historical tragedies of the thirties.
All of the slow-motion shots of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye running through the woods operate the same way as those star making close-ups of Frederic March in Sign Of The Cross (1932) or of John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939). As Trevor Jones’ score swells on the soundtrack and Day-Lewis moves closer to the camera the image becomes mythic rather than humanist. Hawkeye ceases to be either man or character and becomes the embodiment of an ideology, a promise.
Mann’s thesis is that had the white European settlers tried harder there could have been a utopian brotherhood between them and the indigenous people. Hawkeye is the personification of Mann’s dream. The Last Of The Mohicans is Mann pinpointing that moment in history when White Americans crossed that line from which there would be no turning back. For Mann the tragedy is that Hawkeye, the white magic native, is an anomaly.
Paradoxically, The Last Of The Mohicans conveys these lofty ideologies in a genre language riddled with systemic racism. Hawkeye’s nemesis Magua (Wes Studi), a Wyandot warrior who has embraced the materialist values of Europe, represents almost every cliche of the “noble savage”. Magua, though equipped with a clear code of honor, is nonetheless prone to violence and sadism. The French and British soldiers on the other hand enact a kind of moral brutality through their collective bureaucracies that does not seem to include the oppression of indigenous peoples.
These less than racist whites and the mercenary Mohawk warriors are a romantic perversion of white American history that the cinema has continually proliferated. The Last Of The Mohicans is no exception, but it does inject Mann’s ideological agenda into the genre complex. The issue here is that the discourse between Mann’s idealism and the inherently racist mechanisms of the frontier drama is no more sophisticated or original than that of Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955).
Mann’s own idealistic notions of fraternity between white colonists and indigenous people is no more problematic than the politics of his genre. Mann’s subjective vision of the “noble savage” or “good guy” in the form of Hawkeye essentially fetishizes the culture of the Eastern Algonquian peoples. Mann’s cultural tourism is no different than that of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990) or Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972). The Last Of The Mohicans does not advocate historical revisionism but rather celebrates the white romantic view of history. The Last Of The Mohicans is then very much an ideological remake of the 1936 film by George B. Seitz and a continuation of that unique Hollywood tradition.