A Choice LOTM Review

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Posted by Joy on September 06, 1999 at 07:28:54:

At the risk of being a "Clean Board Hog" here's a really good LOTM review from Commonwealth magazine people may enjoy:

Mann has done a beautiful job. This Last of the Mohicans is both immediate and elegiac, gorgeous to look at but not embalmed by its own beautiful photography, full of chases, hand-to-hand combat and "hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach," yet not lacking in contemplative passages that let you breathe and get to know the characters who will soon enough be in peril again. Mann has made an adventure film that haunts as well as excites. There is smoke on the horizon after all. The screenplay, concocted by Mann and Christopher Crowe out of both the novel and the 1936 Randolph Scott movie, rearranges the book's love rivalries, relieves Natty Bumppo of his indifference to sex, disparages the British colonial policies with a vigor that Cooper never employed, kills off characters that the author spared, spares some that he dispatched, and, by necessity, speeds up and streamlines the plot. Yet this version captures an element of Cooper's vision that is indispensable to the special magic of the story. That element is sylvan. The huge, all-encompassing forest that is the New York State of 1757 (beautifully impersonated by North Carolina's woodlands as photographed by Dante Spinotti) is much more than the backdrop to the action. It is a virtual presence that threatens to absorb everything human that ventures near. This forest is never shot in a melodramatically forbidding way but, though we are given lovely glimpses of waterfalls and ravines, there is nothing idyllic about it either. It is simply engulfing. At the film's conclusion, three lone survivors stand on a cliff gazing at the same mountainous, misty woodland that filled the very first shot of the movie. All three have lost their families to frontier violence: a recently orphaned young woman, her lover orphaned virtually at birth, and a middle-aged warrior, the last of his tribe, who has just witnessed, in the death of his son, the termination of his bloodline. The wilderness seems to invite these three to enter it, be absorbed by it. And they will because they have lost their pasts. There is romantic, call-of-the-wild nihilism in this movie that is alien to the deeply conservative Cooper, who always balanced the claims of natural man against the demands of civilization. But, in this movie sentimental primitivism has its charm. (Alas, Mann is most faithful to Cooper in his depiction of the interracial affair between Uncas and one of Colonel Munro's daughters as a coming together of handsome statues rather than lifelike lovers. As in the book, this approach weakens the tragic climax of the story.) Mann's direction is beautifully flexible. A quarrel between a British commander and his colonial militia is rendered in a long shot that is as balanced in composition and lighting as an eighteenth-century historical painting. But, just when we are becoming too aware of the academic groupings, Mann cuts in to the faces of the disputants and the acceleration keeps the scene alive. But Mann is also a master of the unexpected delay. When Hawkeye covers a messenger's flight through enemy lines by firing from a stockade rampart, the scene is of course staged rapidly with each of the courier's assailants picked off just before they strike. However, as Hawkeye takes aim at the last attacker, Mann first slowly pans his camera along the barrel of the marksman's rifle, then finally cuts to the hammer sticking; we hear the shot, see the messenger running, but also see his attacker still alive, still in motion, and about to strike. Then the bullet finds it mark. This second or so of delay not only adds a jot of suspense but makes us feel the epic status of Hawkeye as a marksman: slowly, slowly, his bullets wend through the air but always, always, they hit the mark. Daniel Day-Lewis has the longest, narrowest face and the broadest, richest talent of his acting generation. He is as versatile as Guinness but has a sexual magnetism that Guinness never possessed. His performance here as Hawkeye is so contained that the New Yorker's move critic labeled it a "visual phenomenon." But it seems to me that Hawkeye has learned from the Indians he has lived among to conceal his thoughts and emotions. Day-Lewis's triumph is to make nondemonstrativeness magnetic. And when Bumppo is compelled by circumstances to betray extreme emotion, the actor delivers. Listen to his voice as he pleads with his lover, about to fall into enemy hands, to "Stay alive! I will find you!" Above the roar of a waterfall, Day-Lewis's voice cracks with urgency and defiance of despair. This is no visual phenomenon; it's acting of a high order. As Hawkeye's lover, Madeleine Stowe is so beautiful that she too invites the injustice of being taken as visual treat and nothing more. Hers is an achieved portrait of a woman of great delicacy who, finding herself in the midst of hell, summons the strength to survive without surrendering that delicacy. In the supporting cast two performers deserve comment: the famous stage director Patrice Chereau for making General Montcalm a perfect mixture of delicacy and imperiousness, and Wes Studi for going way beyond political correctness in creating a villain, the treacherous Magua, whose ability to cherish hatred is at one, in his own mind, with the pride he takes in his race. A very serious and unostentatious monster. Michael Mann must have loved The Last of the Mohicans when he was a boy. He hasn't been very faithful to Fenimore Cooper's storytelling, but I hazard that he has been very faithful indeed to the daydreams that Cooper once gave him.

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