Monday, April 6, 2009

Legends of the Fall: The Last of the Mohicans.

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Braveheart and The Patriot have always struck me as broad, bombastic exercises in melodrama, dubious history, and outdated celebration of nationalistic fervour.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 essayStay 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 Old World colonial powers of France and England, who in turn form opportunistic alliances with the settler and native populations. Mann presents his Old World characters primarily as a critique of the venal, mercenary, and hypocritical aspects of civilisation. The English and French generals distinguish themselves from the supposed “savagery” of the New World by virtue of a set of high minded ideals of honour and propriety, each of which they are prepared to sacrifice in the name of self-interest.

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 New World which is the order of commerce, urbanization, and modernity. In his speech towards the end of film, Nathaniel encapsulates much of this dark shadow side to the American dream, and the danger for Native Indians of succumbing to the worst vices of their oppressors: “Would Magua use the way of the French and the English? Would the Huron make his brothers foolish with brandy and steal his land to sell for gold to the white man? Would Huron have greed for more land than a man can use? Would Huron sell the furs of all the animals in the forest for beads and strong whiskey? Those are the ways of the English, and the French traders, and their masters in Europe infected with the sickness of greed. Magua’s heart is twisted; he would make himself into what twisted him.”

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 America of the future. In this sense, LOTM is a melancholy legend of America’s fall into modernity from a prelapsarian ideal of lush, unbounded wilderness, lovingly evoked by Dante Spinotti’s extraordinary cinematography. At the same time, there is much about LOTM which is buoyant, celebratory, and romantic. It posits the birth of America as a time of immense contradiction, promise, energy, and struggle; at one point Cora comments that the whole world is on fire, speaking to the amorous and martial passions which swell and intertwine throughout the film. Contrasting Duncan and Cora, Mann emphasizes two very different methods of interaction between the Old World and the New. Duncan envisions the wilderness as a backward colony to be remade in the “higher” values of his own culture; Cora, on the other hand, through her courageous, adventurous character, and her romance with Nathaniel, comes to appreciate the New World as something that must be engaged with on its own terms. As she tells Nathaniel, the frontier is “more deeply stirring to my blood than any imagining could possibly have been.”

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 America will be characterised by the hypocrisy and greed of the Old World, and much of Chingachgook’s world will truly vanish; but the romance of Nathaniel and Cora speaks to the possibility of understanding and integration between individuals of vastly different cultures, and the subtle birth of new cultures via such marriages. Lost in the impersonal drift of history, there is nevertheless Chingachgook’s powerful assertion: “The frontier place is for people like my white son and his woman and their children. And one day there will be no more frontier and men like you will go too, like the Mohicans. And new people will come, work, struggle. Some will make their life. But once, we were here.”

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.


  1. I love Last of the Mohicans. It's Mann's most purely entertaining and accessable film. That whole wave of Romantic Historical adventure films that you touch on with your reference to Braveheart are all poor attempts to repeat it's success. It's also Mann's most emotional film (with the possible exception of Miami Vice) for me. That's partly due to the fact that thematically it's the simplest, most straightforward and also the least interesting thing he's ever done. Which somehow seemed to enrich the emotional content of his visual storytelling to the exhilarating, operatic levels you describe. As such it's a tough film to deconstruct and you've done fine critical job of discussing its more complex elements in this piece.

  2. I agree, the last ten minutes, the climax, is one of Mann's most evocative, emotionally charged endings. The stirring music belies the tragedy at the heart of this drama. There is poetry and tragedy fused together creating moments of reluctant beauty.

  3. This is a fantastic look at a film of Mann's that isn't talked about all that much. In some respects, it is a tad underappreciated but I do like it a lot, especially for Daniel Day-Lewis' muscular performance, proving yet again what a chameleon he is and how he inhabits fully every role he does.

  4. Thanks for the comments, and thanks to Mannfan for linking to this over on his michael mann blog. David n, you're right, it is one of the more thematically straightforward Mann movies, and harder to write about as a result! JD, I like day-lewis in lotm as well, he seems to genuinely relish being an action hero for a change.

  5. Excellent essay; after reading it, I can see more links between this film and the rest of Mann's work (sort of like how Gangs of New York relates to Scorsese's main body of work).

    One thing that always strikes me about LOTM is the influence of classical paintings depicting the era, particularly in the scene where Munroe and the settlers argue at Fort William Henry. That one shot framing Munroe and the British on the left, perfectly balanced with Nathaniel and the settlers on the right, is like a living painting. If the film were re-made today, I imagine it being done in more of a hand-held documentary style a la Bourne; I'm glad Mann had the chance to make it exactly the way that he did.

  6. There was a Mann interview in Sight & Sound when the film was released in which he discussed the influence of various painters on his visual choices, but I don't have it to hand and can't find it online (though I'm sure its out there somewhere) so I can't be specific.

    You're right about the possibility of it being handheld, too - he actually ends that S&S interview talking about his frustration with shooting in the forest and the problem with being inspired by something as transitory as nature and how he was grateful to return to urban areas etc. I always feel he's a director most at home in the City, on a number of levels.