Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Mann Week: The Last of the Mohicans

Hollywood’s depiction of the American West being domesticated during the Classic period is rife with stereotypes. Native Americans in John Ford films, for example, were often portrayed in two ways: as noble savages or ferocious red devils. Until recently, they were often played by white actors with their language reduced to garbled, simple, child-like speak. Not until the 1990s has their authentic languages been used in films. Most films portrayed them as vicious instead of also victims (which is what they really were in many cases) to justify the narrative that usually involved their extermination.

Coming off a cinematic hiatus of six years since Manhunter (1986) was released, Michael Mann returned with a vengeance with his robust, muscular take on The Last of the Mohicans (1992). On the surface, it seemed like a radical departure for a filmmaker known for urban crime dramas like Thief (1981), Miami Vice, and Crime Story but thematically it fits right in with his no-nonsense protagonists who are the best at what they do and are faced with a decision between their profession and the ones they love.

The Last of the Mohicans is set in 1757 during the third year of the war between England and France. Dialogueless footage of three men running through a lush, green forest plays during the opening credits. Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), Uncas (Eric Schweig) and Chingachook (Russell Means) are hunting a large elk which Hawkeye subsequently shoots and kills with deadly accuracy. This brief sequence establishes him as a man of action and an efficient hunter. Like other Mann protagonists Hawkeye is his own man, preferring to do things on his own terms and is fiercely loyal to his family and friends.

The three men stop by a settler’s cabin that night and learn that the French army with Native Indian support is encroaching on their land. Like his settler friends, Hawkeye does not seem interested in the conflict. It is not his fight. He reinforces this belief two scenes later when a British officer (Jared Harris) tries to recruit him. Hawkeye replies, “You do what you want with your own scalp and I’ll be tellin’ us what we ought to do with ours.” This scene is significant in that we see the dynamic between Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachook. The latter is the father of the other two men and they are clearly close to each other by the way they act towards one another. This is evident in the opening scene when they worked as a team to hunt the elk and now in this social setting. This scene is also one of domestic bliss, something that is always treasured in a Mann film and one that is also fleeting. Mohicans is no different. Hawkeye and his friends laugh and talk over dinner with a warm, inviting fire in the background. It is an intimate setting, one of safety and familiarity. It will also be the last time they will all enjoy this kind of atmosphere.

Mann’s trademark color palette is muted in Mohicans with green being the only one with any prominence. He uses the green of the forest, that Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice Munro (Jodhi May) travel through on the way to be reunited with their father, Colonel Munro (Maurice Roeves) at Fort William Henry, to foreshadow the impending danger of the Indian sneak attack that will decimate the complement of soldiers protecting them and bring them in contact with Hawkeye for the first time.

The ambush shows the foolishness of the British military tactics. They take their time to form a line giving the attacking Indians ample time to take cover and then counter-attack. In a matter of moments almost all of the British troops have been killed until Hawkeye and his crew arrives and swiftly deals with these marauders with same kind of deadly efficiency. Hawkeye and Magua (Wes Studi) meet face to face for the first time in this scene as Magua narrowly misses Hawkeye with his rifle and then disappears into the forest before he can get a good shot at him. This almost unnatural exit sets up Magua as an unstoppable force of nature, like Hawkeye but only on the opposite end of the moral spectrum. The ambush establishes the quick, brutal nature of combat in the film as Mann moves away from the overtly stylish action in Thief and Manhunter towards a more realistic depiction with truly harrowing scenes of men getting scalped, stabbed and slashed. Every subsequent film Mann would make after Mohicans would depict violence in a jarring, realistic nature.

The character of Magua is fleshed out and given a chance to explain the motivation for his ruthless hatred of the English: his village was burned down, his children killed, he was taken as a slave and his wife thought he was dead and remarried. He delivers a powerful monologue to his French co-conspirator, “In time, Magua became blood brother to the Mohawk, to become free but always in his heart he’s Huron. His heart will be whole again when the day the Gray Hair and all his seed are dead.” Wes Studi delivers this speech with scary intensity that is indicative of his incredible performance throughout the film. He portrays Magua as a ferociously driven man who believes in what he is doing as much as Hawkeye does. Like Daniel Day-Lewis, Studi’s performance is very physical and he commands the screen with his intense presence due in large to his piercing eyes.

Mann is clearly sympathetic to the settlers’ plight and their decision to protect their homes instead of helping defend Fort Henry against the French, which falls to them anyway. However, it is the love story between Cora and Hawkeye that lies at the heart of this film. Aside from a few meaningful, longing looks at each other, their sudden consummation is not believable because no foundation for it has been properly established. Cora is another, strong female Mann character, like Jesse in Thief. She stands up for Hawkeye to her father when he is caught for helping some militia men desert so that they can go defend their homes. She argues Hawkeye’s case and even speaks seditious ideas in front of him. Yet, she spends a lot of the film as a damsel in distress having to be rescued by Hawkeye on at least two occasions.

Mann only betrays the realistic battle scenes once with a stylistic indulgence. When Munro and his men are ambushed by Magua’s war party. Cora is attacked and about to have her throat slashed. Hawkeye spots her and runs towards her, killing several men along the way in slow motion for what seems to take forever and reaches her long after she surely would have been actually killed. However, he gets to her just in time and dispatches her attacker. Studi remembers that during the filming of this scene there being a lot of racial tension between the actors playing the British troops and the Indian actors which also added to the intensity of the scene.

One of the most striking aspects of Mohicans is Dante Spinotti’s stunning cinematography. Mann constantly punctuates scenes with picturesque shots of the countryside: early morning fog gently rolling off a mountain range, a raging waterfall and fields of tall grass. Browns and mostly greens dominate the color scheme of this film. For the look of Mohicans, the director started with 19th century landscape painters like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, chiaroscuro lighting, and 18th century portraits. It was Bierstadt's paintings that influenced the look of the film "in terms both of compositions and of what the place looked like," Mann has said. As he progressed, however, he realized that "objective reality outstripped me, and I brought it back to a more conservative palette. If you were an American Indian and grew up in the forest, so all you saw were brown and green."

Even more so than The Keep (1983), Mohicans feels the most un-Mann-like of any of his films. His usual iconography is subdued or non-existent. Mohicans tries to counter many of the Native American stereotypes in Hollywood films. Hawkeye is completely aligned with the Native Americans while falling in love with Cora, a white woman. Initially, the racial distinction is blurred as Hawkeye is not given priority at the beginning of the film. They are all equal for a little while. Of course, being the star, Hawkeye does become the central focus of the story. This is where Mann’s film stops being progressive and reverts back to the old stereotypes with good and bad Native Americans. While he does up the ante in terms of realistic battle scenes, his story is very middle of the road and one that typifies a big-budget Hollywood film.

Mann had long been fascinated by the period of history that Mohicans is set in but his interest in the project can be traced all the way back to his childhood. He saw the 1936 version starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye when he was four or five-years-old at a church in his neighborhood that would show 16mm films in their basement. Mann remembered “the corollary tragedy of Uncas and Alice at the end, plus I remember the fearsomeness of Magua, and the uniqueness of the period.”

Mann first acquired the rights to Philip Dunne's 1936 screenplay of The Last of the Mohicans and wrote a story outline based on it, the Smithsonian’s 30-volume North American Indian Handbook, a diary by Bouganville, Montcalm’s aide, and Simon Schama’s essay The Many Deaths of General Wolfe in 1988. He walked into the offices of Joe Roth, then Chairman of 20th Century Fox, and Roger Birnbaum, then President of Worldwide Production, and pitched a realistic take on Mohicans. They liked the idea and green-lit the project. Marketing surveys for 20th Century Fox revealed that few moviegoers had read Cooper’s novel but were familiar with the title.

As always, Mann did a lot of research on this period of history. He realized how “revisionist James Fenimore Cooper was in 1826 when he was revising [the perception of American Indians] into noble savages [who had] their life, their culture, their territory, their commerce, who [did not] need more sophisticated folks (like Cooper and his family), to look after their interests and their land. So, it was eye-opening to do the research on the Mohicans and get to the true dimensionality of that society.” From there, Mann constructed the outer frame of the film and established “the scale of a geopolitical conflict – the ethnic and religious conflicts, the struggle of white imperialism on a grassroots level, the condition of the struggle for survival of the colonial population, and the struggle between the Euramerican and European powers and the American Indian population.” Mann studied the history of the American frontier, read diaries from the time period and consulted with historians. For the director, “the details make this movie ring true. Audiences today are more visually sophisticated. They know the real deal, and they know when they’ve been shortchanged.”

Mann was interested in developing the epic scale of the story and proceeded to juxtapose these elements with an intimate love story between Hawkeye and Cora Munro. It is this coupling that illustrates where Mann deviates from Cooper's book in specific areas. Cora was originally a mulatto and Colonel Munro wanted Heyward to marry Cora but he preferred Alice. Mann switched it so that Hawkeye and Cora fall in love and had sex. Originally, Hawkeye’s name was Natty Bumppo but Mann felt that it was “kind of a silly name” and changed it to Nathaniel Poe. He also based Major Heyward on Cooper himself.

Mann wanted acclaimed actor Daniel Day-Lewis to play Hawkeye, which the studio was less than thrilled about. Mann remembers, “The choice I got the weirdest reaction to was when I said Daniel Day-Lewis was going to be Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans. Because American studios didn’t know him. They said, ‘You mean that skinny guy? That short, skinny guy in a wheelchair?’ Because all he had done was My Left Foot.” His co-star Madeleine Stowe remembers that prior to doing the film Day-Lewis had just played Hamlet at the National Theatre in London and ran from the stage crying, convinced that he was talking to the ghost of his own dead father. She felt a lot of uncertainty from him until he got into the physicality of his character, then he appeared to be very confident. According to Mann, physicality is one of the important ways Day-Lewis arrived at his character’s emotional state. Day-Lewis is good as a no-nonsense Mann protagonist but, at times, his alpha male bravado veers dangerously close to John Wayne territory. He certainly looks the part with his impressive lean, muscular physique – a radical change from his role in My Left Foot (1989) – and is more than up to the task for film’s demanding action sequences.

Stowe’s agent got her to read the script for Mohicans but the actress thought that, “it was a nice action picture, I didn’t feel any particular affinity for either Cora nor the story.” Her initial reluctance to the material was based on her dissatisfaction with action films. “I was fed up with them and I initially thought that the script was just another action film dressed up as a period piece.” Stowe’s agent kept after her and she read it two more times before meeting with Mann. They talked about the film and he told her his vision of it. A week later, Stowe met with Mann again and read with Day-Lewis and Steven Waddington. That day she found out that it was Day-Lewis who had suggested to Mann that she play Cora.

Casting director Bonnie Timmerman called Russell Means and asked him if he would be interested in trying out for a major role in a major film. However, the day they wanted him to audition, he was going to a political convention in Monterrey. They worked it out so that Means could do both. However, on the day he ended up missing the audition. He got another call from Mann who asked Means to audition for a role in the film. Means remembers that Mann “had been a documentary filmmaker during the 60's and 70's and he remembered the American Indian Movement, and Dennis Banks and myself as leaders.” After four auditions, Means was cast as Chingachook.

Mann brought in Colonel David Webster, who was in charge of the Many Hawks Special Operations Camp out of Fort Bragg in Columbus, Ohio, to train the cast for a month. In addition, Day-Lewis did an extraordinary amount of research and preparation for his role. Mann sent him on a six-month course of body building and weapons training at an anti-terrorist camp followed by several weeks in the wild learning how to survive with very little. He learned to track and skin animals, build canoes, fight with tomahawks, and fire and reload twelve pound flintlocks on the run. He spent five times a week for six months training to build up his stamina and upper body. Mann and Day-Lewis actually lived in the forests of North Carolina – Mann for a week, Day-Lewis for a month. The actor spent most of his time with experts on the lives and skills of American Indians.

Mohicans started with a budget of $24 million and a 250-member crew. Other articles reported that the budget was around $33 or $40 million. The principal photography was set for two-and-half months in the forests of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains during the Spring of 1991. Mohicans would continue Mann's uncompromising approach to controlling every aspect of the production. He leveled hills, cleared 38 acres of trees and hired 130 carpenters to build Fort Henry. To achieve the authenticity of the period everything had to be built from scratch, including designing and manufacturing the breechcloths of six different Indian peoples and building French and English ordinance.

The grueling grind of the production took its toll. The Unit Production Manager and the Transportation Director were fired. All the original department heads, with the exception of the head of sound, quit. In perhaps the most startling move, cinematographer Douglas Milsome was fired and Mann brought in his favorite director of photography, Dante Spinotti. According to Means, this angered people in the film industry and Mohicans paid for it at the Academy Awards. The non-Union crew wanted to be a Union one and went on strike a day before principal photography was supposed to start. The studio ultimately gave into their demands.

While filming at Lake James, all the American Indian extras organized themselves and went on strike because their living conditions were awful and, according to Stowe, were not being well fed. There was one bathroom for 400 extras. Actors Eric Schweig, Means, and Day-Lewis joined the extras on the picket line. Military advisor Dale Dye organized the men playing the Red Coats in the film with the intention of breaking through the strike line. As they approached Means punched the first Red Coat and knocked him down. The rest of them scattered. Dye was able to get them reorganized and then the producers stepped in and asked Means to mediate between the two sides. In Means' opinion, the awful living conditions for the American Indian extras were the fault of the assistant directors. "Michael Mann was so focused on his art that he didn't realize what his A.D.s were doing ... and what his A.D.s did was effectively demoralize everyone."

When asked about the film’s production problems Mann said, “What I will tell you, however, is that this was a really difficult picture. You warn people ahead of time that this is going to be a tough picture to do, and people say, "That's fine, I can handle that," and sometimes they can't.” The filmmaker made no apologies for his exacting attention to detail. "Everything impacts on an audience. Everything. And you can either pay attention to it or let it go and let technicians do it. To me that's wasteful." Mohicans was originally slotted for a July release but was pushed back to September to avoid stiff competition and for a better position for Academy Award nominations.

The studio marketing department promoted Mohicans as a love story in a war zone, but Mann felt that it was about human struggle, “where life is short and passion is where you can find it; you are part of a people who are disappearing and the world is changing around you.” Means was not happy with how 20th Century Fox handled the film. He had two problems with the studio. Firstly, he claims that the studio forced Mann to cut down his original version that ran two hours down to 108 minutes removing “some very pertinent scenes in there, and dialogue, that would have shown the Indians in an even better light then it already does.” Secondly, Means said that the studio targeted the over 35 crowd, selling it as a love story. “As you know, it was kind of gory and there was a lot of action. So, if they'd have pitched it to 20/35 crowd, as their primary audience, it not only would have made another 50 million off of that ... 20th Century Fox shot themselves in the foot over that film ... A classic like that and they messed around with it. It just goes to point up in Hollywood they don't know anything about Indians nor the audience that they purport to know everything about.”

According to Stowe, the studio “had huge doubts” about the film during the editing and audience test screenings who were put off by the film’s violence. She felt that Mann was under a lot of pressure from the studio to change the film. The actress saw a cut in July of 1992 and felt that the studio was wearing Mann down so she called Joe Roth and “told him how beautiful the film was, and that I was fully ready to support it, that Michael’s work was wonderful and I imagined that Daniel would feel the same. he listened quietly and read between the lines.” Mann met with the studio again and successfully fought for his cut of Mohicans.

The Last of the Mohicans was released on September 25, 1992 in 1,491 theaters grossing $10.9 million on its opening weekend. It went on to make $75 million in North America, well over its $40 million budget. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert felt that Mann’s film was “not as authentic and uncompromised as it claims to be – more of a matinee fantasy than it wants to admit -- but it is probably more entertaining as a result.” Peter Travers, in his review for Rolling Stone, praised Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance: “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.’” David Ansen also praised Day-Lewis’ performance in his review for Newsweek magazine: “This amazingly graceful actor builds his character out of body language ... He turns this 18th century action hero into a freshly imagined romantic icon ... Day-Lewis makes the most wildly heroic gesture seem natural.”

In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, “Whether there's a full-scale massacre of innocents, or a lover's kiss behind a raging waterfall, the movie is all expertly controlled sensation ... The battles are pyrotechnical displays of cannon fire and gleaming redcoats. Even the awesome landscape looks designed. Mann wasn't thinking story, he was thinking scheme. Keep the eyes and ears dazzled, he reasons, and the substance will follow.” Richard Schickel, in his review for Time magazine, wrote, “Above all Mann has seen to it that something spooky, suspenseful or just plain action packed happens every five minutes. In the process, he has eliminated the last traces of Cooper’s high-viscosity prose and sentiments.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “And Mann has created a great villain in Magua, the vengeful Huron. Wes Studi, who was in Dances With Wolves, has a glowering face, all scars and furrows, that seems to be imploding with rage. At the same time, he reveals that the furious Magua is actually a thoughtful, complex man; he sees what the Europeans are doing to his people, and he despises them for it.”

The success of Mohicans not only established Mann with box office clout in the eyes of Hollywood, it also proved to be a hit with audiences and critics. More importantly, it paved the way for his next and even greater film, Heat (1995), a pet project that had been gestating for years.

Here is a clip from one of the film's exciting battle scenes:


10 comments:

  1. This is quite the post! Not only an analysis of the film itself, but so much behind-the-scenes info too!

    This flick is one of my all-time faves (Though where Mann is concerned, INSIDER and HEAT are tops), and cornball as it may seem, I could watch that waterfall scene on loop.

    Great idea (a Mann-a-Thon). Wish I'd thought of it/heard about it sooner.

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  2. The Mad Hatter:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the compliments.

    I like this film for its stunning visuals. On that level it works amazingly well. The dialogue is a little cliche at times but I guess that is part of the film's charm.

    I hope you enjoy the rest of the blogathon!

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  3. J.D.:

    Another great retrospective!

    I agree with you that Last of the Mohicans in many ways seems the "un-Mann" film, but you do an excellent job putting everything in context.

    I love this film. I saw it three times in the theater way back in 1992, and I remember the first time, my buddy left the auditorium and said, simply: "the American epic is back."

    Also, Last of the Mohicans was the first laserdisc I ever bought (and hell -- is it available on blu ray yet?)

    Great review!

    best,
    John Kenneth Muir

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  4. John Kenneth Muir:

    Thank you so much for the kind words!

    Yeah, MOHICANS was the first Mann film I ever saw on the big screen and, with the exception of ALI, I've managed to see every subsequent film of his on the big screen. It is an odd film in the context of the rest of Mann's other films but is consistent in terms of themes and motifs that he continues to explore and is obsessed with.

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  5. Oh hey! Just realized I can contribute!! Here's my review for PUBLIC ENEMIES...whaddaya think? Link worthy??

    http://mcneilmatinee.blogspot.com/2009/07/review-public-enemies.html

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  6. The Mad Hatter:

    Looks good! Thanks for the link. I'll add it to the blogroll.

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  7. A very thoughtful, insightful post, J.D. TLofM has so much going for it in the direction, action, and actor performances, and the care Mann took with portraying historical battles. The use of native people, and their fighting prowess, by both the French and the British was central to their war plans. But they suffered for it, afterwards.

    Which makes Mann's portrait of Magua's character that much more compelling, overall. Gleiberman's note of him being "... a thoughtful, complex man; he sees what the Europeans are doing to his people, and he despises them for it.", is incisive. Of those in the tale, it's Magua that's sees the broader picture of what's at stake for his people, understands his allies and enemy, and in fact, is the most fluent in the different languages spoken. I dare say, he is one of the most realized villains on film. I'd put him on par with Rob Roy's Archibald Cunningham in that regard--along with each villain's martial skill. Another great review/analysis of a Michael Mann film, J.D. (it's a great deal of fun going through your archives).

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  8. I forgot to add that I had to get the British R2 version of TLotM to have at least one copy of the theatrical cut. All U.S. discs only offer the director's cut. The latter removed some scenes/dialogue while adding others, IIRC. I usually alternate versions--and yes, my wife thinks I'm nuts. Oh, well. Thanks, J.D.

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  9. Wow, thanks le0pard13 for all of that additional info! I would love to get a copy of the theatrical version as I do like watching alternate versions as well.

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    ReplyDelete