From the opening of The Last of the Mohicans, in which Daniel Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye fires his phallic rifle at the camera, you can tell director and co-writer Michael Mann’s film version of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel will not be stuffy. The book appeared in 1826, sixty-nine years after the events of the French and Indian War it describes. Hollywood’s most famous film version, with Randolph Scott as Hawkeye, premiFred in 1936. Mann, of TV’s Miami Vice and Crime Story, borrows from both sources but relies chiefly on his own research and showman’s instincts for something more brutal, erotic and, well, box office.
Though Mann clumsily lays out the Indian and white alliances — the Algonquin and New York’s colonial militia with the British and the Huron with the French — the action is richly detailed and thrillingly staged. The siege of Fort William Henry and the Huron ambush on the British are bloodier than Manbunter, Mann’s fierce 1986 thriller, which introduced Hannibal the Cannibal to movies. Still, the scalpings and eviscerations can’t hide the film’s dramatic hollowness.
Mann has slagged Cooper for romanticizing and disempowering the Indians. But except for Magua, the understandably vengeful Huron superbly acted by Wes Studi, Mann falls into the same trap. Hawkeye is the orphaned son of English settlers, raised by his adoptive Mohican father, Chingachgook (Indian activist Russell Means). But in the book, Chingachgook and his son Uncas (Eric Schweig) are the focal points as the last of their tribe. Hawkeye, though a frontier paragon, is a remote figure, immune to European greed and the lure of the flesh.
Cooper scholars may be poleaxed to see Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye talking street to Steven Waddington’s prissy Major Heyward (“I ain’t your scout, and I sure ain’t no damn militia”) and wet-kissing Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), the daughter of a redcoat colonel (Maurice Rodves) who wants him hanged for sedition. The lithe Day-Lewis, more puckish than primitive despite the shoulder-length locks, is riveting. Luckily, he and the radiant Stowe can make the cornball credible — even a farewell scene at a waterfall where he vows to find her again, “no matter how long it takes, no matter how far.”
It passes all but commercial understanding why Mann would want to convert James Fenimore Cooper into Barbara Taylor Bradford. Besides, the infatuation in the book is between Cora. who has black blood, and Uncas (now relegated to the background along with Cora’s simpy sister Alice, played by Jodhi May). Presumably, Mann finds the interracial angle — as relevant as in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever — old hat. By transferring Uncas’s passion to Hawkeye and doing away with Cora’s Creole roots, Mann turns a tragic love story into an upbeat all-white romance and a mythic American hero into a crowd-pleasing anachronism.