There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The sixty-first entry into this unbroken backlog is Michael Mann's operatic update of the oft-adapted classic, The Last of the Mohicans...
We’re staring down the barrel of a gun. It’s long and black; a hand cannon of wrought iron with a heavy, wooden handle. Through its sights, we rack focus to find an ace sharpshooter, taking aim at something down in the trees below. The muzzle flashes and the firearm erupts with a plume of smoke, billowing up and around the gunman; dancing in the glow of the golden hour sun that streaks through the canopy above. The man stands erect and squints, hoping to see if his shot has connected.
This is 1757, as seen through the lens of Michael Mann – a director obsessed with men of dangerous trade. Only instead of a safecracker or an ace bank robber, Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) is our guide, a tracker who knows the lay of the land better than God Himself. The wilderness of Colonial America is, like all (usually urban) landscapes in Mann’s films, an extension of the character. He navigates it with a sure-footedness that gives him ownership over each of the film’s frames. Ever the purveyor of cinematic masculinity, Mann has yet again provided the audience with a lone wolf alpha, defined by the skill and raw machismo he’s cultivated through years of hard living. Hawkeye is a survivor; a brute. But he’s also a noble leader, directed by an unshakable moral compass passed down from his adoptive Delaware Indian family.
Without The Last of the Mohicans ('92), Daniel Day-Lewis may have never graduated from Academy Award-winning art house thespian to bona fide movie star. Up until this point, Day-Lewis was known mostly for his work in Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being ('88) and Jim Sheridan’s impeccable My Left Foot ('89), for which DDL won the Oscar for Best Actor. He gave other stellar performances in the UK - such as in Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette ('85) - but while these were all undeniable critical successes, none threatened to catapult Day-Lewis to marquee superstardom. However, Mann transforms Day-Lewis (who, in pure hyper-Method form, lived in the woods for months to prepare his character for the shoot) into a smoldering icon. His lean frame and square features house a commandingly indelicate presence, sharing many longing looks with Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), the daughter of a stern British Colonel (Maurice Roëves). In short, Mann made Daniel Day-Lewis a heartthrob for the first time in his Hollywood screen career.
A steadfast outsider, Hawkeye is devoted to his life as a tracker, forsaking a wife and children in service to his craft. Mann focuses on the details of his trade with his typical intense procedural fascination. From Hawkeye’s reading of leaves, to the decision not to grant Christian burial to a newly slaughtered family he stumbles upon while fleeing a war party, Mann ensures that we know how skilled the white man is in his chosen field. Just as James Caan would be utilizing oxy lance to split a safe in Thief ('81), Mann equips the hunter with his own unique tools, including a period appropriate maple stock Pennsylvania long rifle. It’s this meticulous attention to minutiae that defines each and every one of the director’s pictures. Yet this careful consideration isn’t simply a fetishistic recreation of era. These particulars work to inform and build Mann’s central protagonists; an old school devotion to “show, don’t tell” aesthetics.
Like all of Mann’s movies, we cannot have an ace without an equal. In this case, Hawkeye’s mirror image is Magua (Wes Studi), a vengeful, murderous member of the Huron tribe who absolutely hates “the grey hair” white man for invading his land. To Magua, the Colonies and the pink faces who inhabit them are nothing more than a signifier of an oncoming apocalypse for his people. Having already lost his family to the bulldozer of imperialism, Magua is hell-bent on taking the Colonel’s children from him. After he puts the soldier’s seed under the knife, he’ll cut the man’s heart out and hold it before his dying eyes, letting him know just how he felt when the Redcoats did the same to his kin. He'd be a savage caricature if Magua weren’t so sympathetic. Just as Mann would make sure that we understand Neil McCauley’s (Robert De Niro) commitment to discipline in Heat ('95), the auteur gets inside Magua’s head and rounds him out to become the picture’s most interesting player. Magua's a warrior, driven by the spirits who haunt him at night, pleading to take revenge not only for their murder, but the genocide of an entire race, as well.
The themes of racial infiltration and imperialism are part of what makes Last of the Mohicans so endlessly fascinating. While it’s never overtly stated, one could deduce that Magua hates Hawkeye just as much as the killers who occupy his country. Because Hawkeye - born Nathaniel "Natty" Bumppo of British descent - has invaded his culture, infiltrated and repurposed it into an identity that's truly not his own. Not only does Magua have to deal with the marauding white forces, here’s this Caucasian dressing up in the clothes of his people and acting as if he were born the same color as he. It’s racial re-appropriation in America’s earliest days. Meanwhile, even the New York Colonists are tired of Britain’s oppressive regime, discussing freedom from the Crown over campfires and hoping that they will not be overheard and tried for sedition.
Like the professional criminals from Mann’s trademark street operettas have been to jail and refuse to return, the Colonists know that with British rule comes British taxes and laws that they simply cannot abide. They want to operate outside of the autocrats they know and create their own code, a shining example of Mann’s favorite theme writ large. Perhaps this is why Mann doesn't consider his version a straight adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's novel, but rather an interpretation of his recollections of George B. Seitz's '36 film adaptation.
Most point to Last of the Mohicans as being somewhat of an anomaly inside of Mann’s filmography, due mostly to the movie’s mushy tone. Yet the truth is, Mann has always been a hopeless romantic, allowing his hard men to pursue the women they desire the only way they know how — through sharing real world experiences and dreams. In Thief, Frank (James Caan) woos Jessie (Tuesday Weld) with tales of prison violence. In Heat, Neil shares a vision of fleeing to New Zealand with Eady (Amy Brenneman), where the two can live peacefully away from the bank robber’s callously violent profession. In Collateral ('01), Max (Jamie Foxx) worms his way into the heart of Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), by letting her know that the cab he’s driving is simply a means to an end — a “cool groove” limo service that one day is going to be his ticket to self-owned stardom. Last of the Mohicans simply cranks up the volume on these previously understated romantic moments to eleven, letting Daniel Day-Lewis shout “I WILL FIND YOU!” to Cora over both a waterfall and the score's swooning love theme.
Therein lies the genius of his film — Mann discovers aspects of Cooper’s oft-adapted novel that truly inspire him and highlights them with his usual bold visual style. The book may have been brought to screen eight times previous (and his film may share a credit with Philip Dunne’s '36 screenplay), but the writer/director transforms the text into a work that's distinctly his own. That’s pure auteurism; an ability to leave fingerprints on even the most worn out, high school reading list source.