‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is a Michael Mann masterwork

As always, spoilers abound. No complaining.

Most people have a favorite movie. Fewer have a favorite director, and even fewer actually like most things their favorite director has made.

For me, that director is Michael Mann. From the emotionally shattering finale of Manhunter to the tiniest ingenious details in the first episode of Tokyo Vice, Mann is an artist who crafts every frame with purpose, which makes rewatching his films a delightful experience of finding new traces of beauty and intent.

But I’m not here to talk about Heat, which attracts film reviewers like mosquitos to a zapper. Not Miami Vice, either. Today, I want to focus on The Last of the Mohicans.

Mohicans isn’t exactly underrated (it’s sitting at a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, if the Tomatometer means anything to you). Rather, it’s mostly ignored, shelved in deference to Mann’s other works. It is rarely mentioned in retrospectives of his career, despite being the only Oscar-winning film in his oeuvre (for Best Sound).

So today, we’re going to talk about Mohicans — and only Mohicans

Daniel Day-Lewis and Michael Mann on the set of The Last of the Mohicans.

Mann on the frontier

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Hawkeye, the adopted son of aged Mohican patriarch Chingachgook (Russell Means, exuding a quiet calm that was a far cry from his real-life, headline-grabbing activism). Hawkeye’s stepbrother, Uncas, rounds out the family, which almost always appears in scenes together, an unusual but inspired choice that drives home how devoted these characters are to each other. It’s a choice that dates back to the original source material, James Fenimore Cooper’s series of novels about frontier life (though this is one case where I definitely do not recommend reading the books. I hacked my way through “Deerslayer” in high school, and I trust Mark Twain’s opinion as to the quality of the rest. In fact, the film specifically credits the screenplay for the 1936 film adaptation, rather than any of the novels).

While tracking a Huron war party during the early years of the French and Indian War, Hawkeye and family find themselves looking after the two daughters of British Colonel Munro. The daughters are essentially a pair of Jane Austen characters dropped into a violent warzone without the requisite mental or physical fortitude, though the eldest, Cora, proves more durable than the naïve, shell-shocked Alice. What follows is a struggle to keep the daughters alive, one that builds slowly over the course of the film until the finale explodes in a masterful chorus that represents some of the finest 10 minutes in filmmaking history.

I first saw the film as a young child, and I’ve found that the memories forged from that viewing draw special attention to the ways that Mann elevates material other directors might have made boring or rote. I will never forget how Magua, the supposedly Mohawk guide leading the daughters and their military escort through the woods, casually turns and walks against the flow of the march before burying his tomahawk in the neck of an unsuspecting soldier. As with everything in the film, this betrayal doesn’t simply “happen.” There is a build: we seem him turn, see the soldiers look slightly puzzled but completely oblivious, see Magua surreptitiously ready his tomahawk.

Magua just wants to bury the hatchet.

Though we don’t really understand Magua’s motivations until late in the film, this scene gives us an early window into his character beyond the barely-contained rage he expresses almost constantly. There is a theatricality to him, a tendency to delight in confusing his enemies. We see this again later, when his band of rogue warriors terrorizes a battalion of British troops before massacring them.

Speaking of massacres of British troops, one notable aspect of the film is that it does not take sides in the conflict (other than what must have been an irresistible urge to turn one of the British generals into an aristocratic oaf). I’ve found that when I bring up Mohicans in casual conversation, some people tend to remember it as the film that presents “the other side” of the conflict, as if portraying British soldiers massacred (repeatedly) by Huron is somehow in opposition to the wave of revisionist westerns and historical epics, still going strong at the time of release in 1992, that depicted the many crimes committed against native populations throughout America’s history.

Let’s be clear: Mohicans is not presenting “the British side” of the conflict. In fact, the film isn’t really about war in any meaningful sense. Rather, it’s about chaos, about personalities and histories that lead characters into inexorable conflict with each other. If there is a statement about war here, it’s that on the ground, wars are not about countries or politics but about people — people whose allegiances and motivations often have little or nothing to do with the war itself.

The British infantry is ambushed by Magua’s band of renegade Huron warriors.

That’s certainly the case for Magua, whose alliance with the French is purely a means by which to exact revenge on Colonel Munro for the murder of his family. The same goes for his status as an adopted Mohawk, which is simply happenstance. Intellectually and biologically, he is Huron, though even that is murkier than it seems: his vision of what it means to be Huron is twisted by his own tragic experiences and by his long absence from the tribe.

Hawkeye, on the other hand, has no interest in participating in the war and is dragged into it only because he wants to protect Munro’s daughters — specifically his love interest, Cora.

Sounds of silence

It should be clear by now that the plot is nothing spectacular or revolutionary. It’s Mann’s handling of the material that elevates it into a masterwork. Take, for example, the silent romance between Uncas and Alice, in which not a word is spoken onscreen between the characters, and yet — through only a few brief scenes — we understand their relationship and are heartbroken when, in the finale, Uncas is killed and Alice throws herself off a cliff after him, having lost the only thing keeping the trauma of her shell-shock at bay.

Uncas’ lifeless body winds down the cliffside like a snake, recalling the tattoos on his father’s face. Alice seems to fall with the grace of water, which has stained and grooved the cliff faces over millennia and flows with a mixture of beauty and brutal, unsympathetic force. Mann makes a point of repeatedly cutting to waterfalls, big and small, during the final sequence, as if to remind us that water flowed here before any of these characters were born and will flow long after they are gone.

Uncas, grievously wounded, gazes at Alice before his death at the hands of Magua.

I mentioned the film won an Oscar for Best Sound; the finale makes use of a stirring Celtic melody that repeats while gaining momentum throughout the sequence, meshing brilliantly with the visual motif of relentless, unstoppable water while also matching the increasingly frenzied pace of Hawkeye and Chingachgook as they race to rescue and avenge their loved ones. This is only one example of a score that seems to fit the film and its striking visuals perfectly, complementing rather than guiding our emotional reactions to the story.

This is all the more incredible when one discovers that Trevor Jones originally composed electronic pieces for the film, then had to come up with a brand new orchestral score in a mad dash when Mann decided he wanted something more traditional. That score had to be reworked again when the film was cut down to its 112-minute runtime, necessitating some additions from Randy Edelman. What could easily have been a rushed, haphazard mess turned out to be one of the most memorable film scores of the 1990’s.

So why, then, did the film win for Best Sound rather than Best Score? Well, the Academy does have a history of conflating and confusing different categories, but in addition to the more-than-deserving score, the film does make some other interesting sound choices. Most noticeably, it’s one of only a handful of modern films that does away with hokey sound effects for blades and hand-to-hand combat. Weapons, even sharp ones, make realistic thuds rather than squishy metallic noises, drawing attention to the weight and sheer brutality of the tools people use to kill each other.

Paradoxically, the other major sound choice is mostly a lack of sound. The score is a canvas against which Mann lays out his majestic visuals, and everything from dialogue to incidental sound effects often takes a back seat. And when there is a break in the score, it’s usually to emphasize — you guessed it — silence. That’s certainly a sound design choice, and it works great for the film, but in the end, I don’t think there is any real explanation for the Academy’s decision to honor sound design over the score.

Regardless, The Last of the Mohicans is a masterpiece, almost peerless in its seamless convergence of poetic visual storytelling and a complementary orchestral score. Though not everyone would agree with that assessment — The Washington Post’s Desson Howe branded it “the MTV version of gothic romance” and “the Cooper pulp of its day” in one of the most idiotic and superficial film reviews ever printed by a major newspaper — the film has mostly received the appreciation it deserves. But within the context of Mann’s career, it is a forgotten magnum opus, an overlooked departure from the gritty neo-noir for which he is better known. So let this article be a monument to the film’s rightful place as a standout accomplishment in a remarkable career. Don’t let this one fade into obscurity — dig it out and give it a watch.

Watch this movie. Or I will find you.

Being a dad … and a film buff

Today is an odd time to be a film fanatic. There was a time when we knew almost nothing about a film until it was released, other than a notable name or two. Certain landmark events, like Tim Burton’s Batman or the disastrous pre-press surrounding Waterworld, were exceptions to the rule.

To this day, headlines about Waterworld are more concerned with the film’s budget overruns than anything else.

Now, we pore over every bit of information, from early casting decisions to the pedigree of the writer and director. We examine the public comments of everyone involved in search of something anti-social or otherwise objectionable. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big-budget tentpole or direct-to-Roku; we’re all over it. And if something doesn’t meet with the approval of the masses, By God! someone’s going to be held accountable.

By the time the film — for which we already know the storyline, thanks to “sneak peeks” and leaks on the cast’s twitter pages — is released, it’s an anti-climax. And don’t even get me started on today’s exhaustive trailers, which function basically as complete plot summaries.

But something happened recently that sent me backwards in time into an era when all we knew about any given film was that it starred a name actor and had a lame tagline: I became a father (lame tagline, you say?).

Speaking of lame taglines…did Yogi Berra write this?

As any parent knows, trying to watch a movie with an infant is like being offered a piece of cake, only to have it snatched away at the last moment. Repeatedly. So the television and everything attached to it has become less important in the last few months, which means I’ve gone from being someone who knew the casts and plotlines of just about every film in development to living “off the grid.” And as far as actually seeing new releases in a movie theater…well, that’s a distant dream.

Sure, some things slip through. I know each and every twist in Spiderman: No Way Home just from the occasional innocent scroll through Facebook, though I won’t actually see the film until its Blu-ray release. But by and large, I have no idea what’s in theaters right now, or what’s coming down the pipeline, or who went on a racist, sexist, homophobic tirade on which set. And it’s nice.

The last film I saw in a theater without knowing anything about it was “Under the Skin,” one of my favorite films of all time. I love the experience of being guided down the rabbit hole into a story I don’t already have mapped out in my head. The films that made me love cinema in childhood — Road to Perdition, Legends of the Fall, The Last of the Mohicans — were experienced like this. I was not plugged into the entertainment industry. I didn’t know who Michael Mann or Thomas Newman were; I just knew I liked things they were involved in.

Manhunter, a Michael Mann film mostly known today as “the first Hannibal Lecter film.” In reality, it’s one of Mann’s masterworks.

Simply put, I received films as they were meant to be received. Plot misdirection meant something. Twists meant something. Tragedy meant something. There was no voice in my head yelling, “Good writing! Bad writing! This should have happened instead!”

I’m back in that sweet spot again. I saw Midnight Mass on Netflix without having read a single thing about it (and promptly spoiled it in my review. As goes for everything on this site, don’t read it if you haven’t seen it!) and, coincidentally or not, I found it to be a masterpiece.

The point is, there’s a lot of (justified) talk these days about the uninformed masses, but I’m also of the opinion that everyone knows a little too much about everything. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about films, or comedy, or painting, or literature; knowing too much about how a thing was made and who made it, especially before the thing is even experienced, can ruin said experience. Even for those of us who enjoy studying how a film is put together — listening to the audio commentaries, watching the crappy behind-the-scenes featurettes, pausing the film to point out to our significant others the symbolism hidden in the lead actor’s tie — there is a limit. Too much, to quote Stephen Fry, is “precisely that quantity which is excessive.” And ladies and gentlemen, it’s out of control.

I shouldn’t know that Jordan Vogt-Roberts is planning a Metal Gear Solid film that will never get made (the rule, after all, is that only video games with shallow, dull, and derivative narratives — or no narratives at all! — get made into films). I shouldn’t know that Ben Affleck was once attached to a hilariously ill-conceived Paradise Lost film adaptation. The list of unnecessary information is almost infinite.

What I’m happy to know, instead, is that as my daughter grows up, she will have a small window of incredible opportunity to see films — or whatever art she prefers — without the added baggage of a hyperactive, hypercritical society that insists we be fully pre-briefed about absolutely everything before we get out of bed in the morning. And I can’t wait to share that experience with her.

From Father and Daughter, a Dutch animated short and winner of the 2001 Oscar for Best Animated Short.