In one of the best scenes in Miami Vice, Sonny and Isabella dance passionately in a night club, unaware that they are being intently observed by John Oritz’s envious and volatile gangster Jose Yero. It’s a big turning point in the movie: the pent-up emotions that have simmered throughout Vice’s purposefully sluggish pace suddenly erupt, and the various characters must relinquish their tight-lipped masks of nonchalance, and reveal their true natures. In this sense, Sonny and Isabella’s dance encapsulates the movie’s essential emotion: the kinetic charge, and close proximity, of passion and violence. These are themes that Mann had already essayed in his 1992 feature The Last of the Mohicans, an operatic, elegiac song of love and death set against the backdrop of the French and Indian War of 1757.
Mohicans is a historical romance/adventure movie, and as such its setting and ambience make it an anomaly in Mann’s filmography. Outside of Mohicans, Mann has worked, roughly speaking, in two specific genres: crime drama and true life/biography. (The forthcoming Public Enemies is a combination of both.) What remains a constant in all these movies, both visually and thematically, is an iconic exploration of contemporary life via the omnipresence of modern architectures and technologies. (Even Ali feels strikingly modern in its style and execution, including as it does the earliest of Mann’s experimentation with HD digital technology.) Mohicans is thus an initially puzzling experience for many aficionados of the director’s work; envisioning Mann without synthesisers and sodium streetlights, without the cool modernist sheen which has become so much his signature, is a little like watching a John Ford movie without horses and dust.
I was myself a little slow in coming to Mohicans, largely due to a dislike or suspicion of the modern historical adventure picture. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and The Patriot have always struck me as broad, bombastic exercises in melodrama, dubious history, and outdated celebration of nationalistic fervour. I appreciate that Gibson is a canny and very capable popular filmmaker, but for my money his martyrdom sequence in Braveheart is among the comically overblown I have ever seen on film. Mohicans, needless to say, is an entirely different beast. Its passions are heightened and operatic, but never quite bombastic, and instead of nationalistic rabble-rousing, one finds a subtle rumination on the grand promise and deep tragedy of the American frontier.
In the last essay on Manhunter, I was discussing the dichotomy between civilisation and the wilderness in Mann’s movies. Civilisation is contradictory quality in Mann’s world. On the one hand, it offers the potential for stability and domestic happiness, and yet so many of Mann’s protagonists are drawn to a more rugged existence outside of the societal mainstream. Civilisation possesses many perils: the threat of sterility, mendacity, and the kind of corporate dehumanisation that Mann critiques so trenchantly in Thief and The Insider. Mann’s attitude towards modernity is thus complex and contradictory; his gleaming cityscapes are both extraordinarily beautiful, and deeply sterile and lonely places. The best way to view Mohicans in relation to the rest of Mann’s filmograhy is as an evocation of the American frontier as an Edenic wilderness prior to the urbanised, corporatized world of Mann’s other films. To put it more precisely, it is an Edenic wilderness which is in process of being civilized, ironically enough, through struggle and violence. The trio of Nathaniel, Chingachgook, and Uncas are clearly presented in the introductory scenes as a prelapsarian ideal of roaming independence, decency, and piety for the natural world. It is part of Mohicans tragedy that this ideal is not destined to survive, either for the characters as individuals, or as a prevalent way of life in the future America whose birth pains form the film’s backdrop.
LOTM’s concern for the making of a future nation is a persistent undercurrent to its primary function as a romantic adventure. This theme is signalled most prominently by the chief obsession which seems to preoccupy most of the main characters: procreation, bloodline, and progeny. As Matt Zoller Seitz points out eloquently in his essay “Stay alive, no matter what occurs”: sex and survival in The Last of the Mohicans: “In the movie’s political/historical background, Native tribes, white settlers and British and French military forces compete to control the mountains and forests, which they hope will be overrun someday by their descendants. Mohicans shows that both an individual’s goal to mate and pass on genes and a civilisation’s desire to possess and transform the land issue from the same biological urge.” This idea is expressed in its most extreme form in the figure of Magua, who envisions the ending of Colonel Munroe’s bloodline as the ultimate revenge, and in its most melancholy form in the figure of Chingachgook, whose sorrow that his people will not see and participate in the future forms a keynote for the movie as a whole.
The making of a nation is also signalled by the complex melting pot of combatants who are embroiled in the films central conflict. The French and Indian War is waged between the
In contrast, the frontier settlers are a robust, honest, family-orientated community, who seek a land where they might live a modest, self-sufficient existence. Most tragically in LOTM, the native Indian characters face an intruding enemy which seeks to remake the wilderness in its own image. They face the disruption and extinction of a complex, age-old society and way of life which is intrinsically in tune with the natural world, by the imposition of a
The sad resonance of this speech derives from our awareness of how much loss of tribal culture, environmental exploitation, and greed would come to pass in the
In this contrast, LOTM finds a redemptive note to off-set Chingachgook’s sorrow at the end of the film, where he, Nathaniel, and Cora gaze into the future, into the impossibly distant, transformed world of LOTM’s audience. Much of the future
No consideration of LOTM is complete without some reference to its justifiably acclaimed climatic set-piece. The hilltop battle sequence, scored so magnificently by Trevor Jones, is a revelatory fusion of music, staging, choreography, acting, and editing. According to Madeline Stowe, “The best directors I’ve worked with have always had a strong sense of music and movement. Those two things are inseparable. And Michael used them so effectively in LOTM, particularly during the last ten minutes of the film. Sometimes I’ll turn the channel and there’s the movie, and I can honestly say those last few minutes always fascinate me. Its one of those rare instances when image, music, and drama work effectively.” Clive James once commented that cinema, in essence, is still silent; the final looks exchanged between Jodhi May and Wes Studi are among the best silent cinema of the modern period, and the sequence as a whole is surely one of the purest, grandest pieces of opera in popular American cinema.