‘The Last of the Mohicans’: Michael Mann’s Riveting Love Story as the Formation of American Identity

After a string of successes on television, having made a name for himself on projects such as Starsky and Hutch and Police Story, Michael Mann turned to directing films. The TV movie called The Jericho Mile won three Emmy awards and opened the gateway to Hollywood; Thief, The Keep and Manhunter followed, turning Mann into one of the more interesting filmmakers out there. What the director chose to do next, however, was somewhat surprising. “The idea for The Last of the Mohicans came to me because I’d seen the film written by Philip Dunne when I was 3. I realized 40 years later that it had been rattling around in my brain ever since, that it was a part of me, a very important part. I just hadn’t been consciously aware of it up to that point. I also thought: there hasn’t really been an exciting epic, period film in a long, long time,” Mann explained decades later. Written back in 1826, James Fenimore Cooper’s popular novel ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ served as the basis for several film adaptations up to that point, and George B. Seitz’s version from 1936 was the one that Mann found so inspiring. The story of the chief of a dying Mohican tribe and his two sons, one of which is an orphaned Englishman he adopted a long time ago, and their encounter with a British general and his two beautiful daughters during the French and Indian War offered Mann all the ingredients he needed for a period spectacle he was hoping for—he only needed to mix it up a bit. The purely Mohican son Uncas, who was under the spotlight in the original material, was replaced with his brother, the adopted Englishman, the orphaned white man who fully adapted to the wilderness but retained his European identity and language. Hawkeye, as he is called, was Mann’s choice because he most likely felt the audience would connect with him more easily. The other, far more profound and not at all farfetched explanation would be that Hawkeye, the English man who became one with the New World, is an ideal symbol of what can be seen as the identity of the American people as a whole. Either way, Mann created the role of an authentic hero with impressive physicality and an ever-inspirational air of noble savagery. Quite big shoes to fill, and Mann’s casting choice was as unexpected as was his passion for 18th century American romance. Having previously done the comedy-drama My Beautiful Laundrette and the E. M. Forster-adaptation A Room with a View, Daniel Day-Lewis was just enjoying the international success and recognition brought to him by the Academy Award-winning lead role in the biographical drama My Left Foot. Approached by Mann, he agreed to join the project. The rest is, as they say, history. Led by Mann and Day-Lewis’ zealous dedication to the film, The Last of the Mohicans became a box office success, a critics’ favorite and generally one of the most memorable and celebrated movies of the prolific last decade of the 20th century.

One of the most celebrated aspects of Michael Mann’s modus operandi is his devotion to authenticity. First of all, even though the story takes place in the state of New York, The Last of the Mohicans was filmed in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, as Mann felt it better represented the unspoiled land of the mid-18th century. Moreover, in their attempt to build a recreation of Fort William Henry, a vital part of the story, the production crew had to adhere to the actual, 200-year old building plans. In Day-Lewis, the filmmaker found his artistic soulmate: the method actor, of course, completely immersed himself in the role of Hawkeye, living in the woods, hunting and skinning animals, staying away from modern technology, traveling by canoe and carrying his rifle even during breaks. “Making The Last of the Mohicans was particularly challenging. We were trying to re-create the conditions, the tones, the value systems of 1757, particularly for somebody raised in an Algonquian-speaking tribal group such as the Mohicans. How does Hawkeye come on to a woman? How does he say, ‘Hey, I like you. Let’s go out?’ Behind that is an anthropological perspective I always want to have. I want the actor to have that same deep clarity about his or her character,” Mann said. In that regard, he couldn’t have picked a better man for the job than Day-Lewis. Another crucial part of this Mann-hunt for authenticity was the recreation of costumes and props: American Bladesmith Society made the tomahawks, knifemaker Randall King provided the knives, multiple Academy Award winner James Acheson and Elsa Zamparelli designed the costumes. Everything needed to be just perfect.

From the point-of-view of having hung off several mountains with him, I can assure you that Michael is committed to a constructive viewpoint. He is very, very strong about the things in which he believes. Michael’s very, very conscious of how every aspect of film contributes; the colour, the sound, the lighting, the clothes. I never saw him once make an arbitrary decision. On a film of this scale, that takes incredible concentration. Michael isn’t threatened at all by other people’s imaginations. In fact, it gives him pleasure to see where their ideas differ from his. In this business, I don’t have to tell you how rare that is. —Daniel Day-Lewis

 
As much as the film seems an unexpected choice for Mann, there are several elements that convincingly tie The Last of the Mohicans to his body of work: heroes that are very good at what they do and demonstrate utmost care for their loved ones. However, since in the heart of this film lies a true, convincing and powerful love story, the Mohican protagonists do not choose professional obligation over family: their worlds are turned upside-down when they meet and fall in love with the two British ladies. The Last of the Mohicans, for all its glorious battle scenes, visceral action sequences and breathtaking images captured by renowned Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti, is a glorious romance, and without the chemistry and talent of Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe in the role of his self-reliant and intellectual Cora, the movie would lose its heart. And we all know very well what polished Hollywood spectacles without heart look like and mean to film-lovers 25 years after their highly publicized premieres take place.

Written by Mann and Christopher Crowe based on both James Fenimore Cooper’s eponymous novel and Philip Dunne’s screenplay for the 1936 version, shot by Dante Spinotti, with Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman’s orchestral score (accompanied by the unforgettable The Gael, the main theme by Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean), and with the strong supporting roles by Native American activist Russell Means, Eric Schweig and Wes Studi as Magua, the brutal antagonist driven to revenge by the white man’s oppression, The Last of the Mohicans is a historical spectacle we’ve watched a dozen times without blinking. By skillfully combining carefully choreographed action, a hugely talented cast, passionate dedication to details and genuinely apt storytelling, Mann created a mixture of period action and romance that stands out as one of the best movies not only of his career, but of the last couple of decades as well. What without a doubt adds additional value to the film is the larger picture here: by telling a personal story of an English settler raised in the ruthless and untamed wilderness of a new continent who becomes a part of his new environment and refuses to be a subordinate to the pompous British Empire, Mann simultaneously succeeded in telling the story of the conception of the United States. A quarter of a century before the Declaration of Independence, in the forests, creeks and mountains ungoverned by any European monarchs, in the character of Hawkeye the identity of a completely new nation was formed.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Michael Mann & Christopher Crowe’s screenplay for The Last of the Mohicans [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
A fascinating article on Michael Mann for British Vogue, courtesy of Journalism & Criticism.

“I was always been drawn to TV,” says Michael Mann, as he hunches behind his oversize black desk. “Because, with TV, you really go for it. You get some great idea and, three weeks later, you’re shooting. Then, forty-four million people see it, and that’s a genuine thrill.” Stereo speakers built like a Japanese screen surround the director, balancing his staccato tones with soothing eddies of New Age sound. Black leather couches reflect the night which looms beyond his huge windows. And four stories below us glow the night-blooming neons of Sunset Strip.

Like the TV and film work it has spawned (Miami Vice, Crime Story, Manhunter), Michael Mann Productions is a sleek and minimal complex. Yet it is hardly a place where style overpowers substance. Shelves are lined with serious reading (botany, anthropology, history) and state-of-the-art computers zing beneath a snapshot of “Mike’s Chili House.” Someone shuts Mann’s office door, and he hunkers down even further, thinking aloud on electronic culture, on how it has changed our modes of perception, and how this defines what a Mann must do. TV with content, he insists, makes the kind of impact “people can’t even really imagine.”

Mann knows what he’s talking about. As early as 1974, his award-winning The Jericho Mile brought made-for-TV movies a much-needed respectability. Ten years later, with Miami Vice, he changed the pace and aesthetic of advertising as well as TV. His Crime Story married the mythos of good versus evil to a classic fetish: cops and criminals viewed as each other’s döppelgangers. From Brian de Palma’s Untouchables through Billy Bathgate and this year’s Deep Cover, that Mann epiphany carries on in American film.

Then there was Drug Wars: The Camarena Story. Made in 1990, this three-part, six-hour docudrama brought the story of “Kiki” Camarena to primetime television. A US anti-drug agent, Camarena was kidnapped and murdered by Mexican gangsters in 1985. Explicit about government links at every level of that tragedy, Camarena caused uproar from Washington to Cartagena. Mexico alone spent two million dollars demanding the White House apologise—but Mann resisted, and his program won six Grammy Awards.

During the making of Camarena, however, Michael Mann felt restless. So he went back to a project he had started in 1988: a new movie based on James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Under the aegis of 20th Century Fox, it was shot last spring. Now, Mann is editing what will be his first feature film since 1986. That was the year he made Manhunter, a cool, inventive adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel ‘Red Dragon.’ Manhunter served as the blueprint for this year’s much bloodier, Oscar-laden Silence of the Lambs (another adaptation of a Harris book with the same villain). It was Mann’s idea to cast a Briton (Brian Cox) as the charming psychotic—giving the cue to hire Anthony Hopkins six years later. Even Lambs‘ second bad guy, a skinner-of-women called “Buffalo Bill,” offers an offbeat tribute to Mann; he was played by Ted Levine, a lynchpin actor on Crime Story.

 
Michael Mann has always been both subversive and influential. He moves from TV to film (and back) with unusual nonchalance. Before Manhunter, he had made two movies: Thief, which won only critical raves, and The Keep, a quickly-buried failure. Mann is also something of a modern-day Roger Corman—he remains committed to the use of new and unusual talents. Many names on whom he has gambled are now famous for work of their own: especially directors such as Abel Ferrara (The King of New York), Gary Sinise (Of Mice and Men), Bill Duke (Deep Cover) and Thomas Carter (Midnight Caller).

Such creative use of risk extends to Mann’s casting—he has employed as actors such celebrities as Lee Iacocca and G. Gordon Liddy. Mann has also used real detectives (cop Dennis Farina left his job for the lead in Crime Story) and real-life musical legends (Miles Davis, James Brown, Little Richard, Iggy Pop). Black and Latino actors feel that, unlike most Hollywood product, Mann’s work admits there is difference between Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, Afro-Americans and Jamaicans.

The $24 million Mohicans—set in 1757—continues all these traditions. (A main role, for instance, is taken by Russell Means, real-life leader of the American Indian Movement.) But the spark behind Mann’s project came from a childhood memory. “The 1936 version was the first film I remember seeing. I recalled the lovers’ end as very, very poignant.” His blue eyes glitter. “It’s sort of like when you remember the prepubescent erotic appeal of Tinkerbell.”

Cooper’s novel focuses on America’s first frontier war; it is famous for creating that culture’s first existential hero. What attracted Michael Mann was its combination of action, reportage and romance. “The whole thing happens in two weeks—two weeks totally packed with conflict. Thrilling history, something like the spring of 1968. France and England are fighting what was really the first World War, and each nation is allied to a different native American tribe. Plus, after 150 years of white immigration, the Indians decide their deal with the white man has reached critical mass.”

He swivels in his black leather armchair. “Right in the middle, stands this guy who’s a total synthesis: half working-class immigrant and half native American. Fenimore Cooper’s character Hawkeye—who becomes the model American frontier hero.” In this role, that of a European raised as an Indian, Mann cast Oscar-winning Briton Daniel Day-Lewis. The movie pivots on Hawkeye’s “cross-cultural” love for a Scotswoman: a headstrong affair which reflects both radical times and radical change.

 
Day-Lewis himself has arrived in Hollywood only yesterday. Shorn of his foot-long Mohican locks, he is now months removed from the gruelling North Carolina shoot. Yet he’s keen to stress the reasons he admires Mann. “The guy is such an optimist! From the point-of-view of having hung off several mountains with him, I can assure you that Michael is committed to a constructive viewpoint. He is very, very strong about the things in which he believes.”

What sort of beliefs does Day-Lewis mean? Basic stuff, really: family, community, quality work. (Mann has four daughters, one a nascent film-maker, one a photographer). This director thinks that every choice one makes entails responsibilities; he believes America’s true strengths flow from her ethnic diversity. Of course, Mann also thinks TV sitcoms cause crime. “Because the people they show just have so much stuff! Janitors with two-story houses, expensive cars, and Cuisinarts. If you can’t get all that yourself, it’s bound to make you feel substandard.”

When it comes to film, however, Mann’s chief belief is a simple one—absolutely everything counts. Day-Lewis puts it this way: “Michael’s very, very conscious of how every aspect of film contributes; the colour, the sound, the lighting, the clothes. I never saw him once make an arbitrary decision. On a film of this scale, that takes incredible concentration.” Told about this praise, Mann laughs. Organisation, he says, is a side effect of his personal history. His college years were spent at the University of Wisconsin—one of America’s trio of great ’60s radical campuses (the others were Berkeley and Columbia). After university, he attended London Film School and spent several years trying to crack British film. Frustrated in those efforts, he headed for Hollywood. There, in 1975, Mann became a TV script-writer.

“That was my real beginning,” he says. “Writing for TV was a workout: fast, intense, highly-structured. It teaches you about order and discipline. And it’s very helpful for eliminating self-consciousness.”

Self-consciousness hardly seems to be a problem for Michael Mann. But curiosity, on the other hand, gives him little rest. Mann is fascinated—obsessed—by everything from today’s pop chart to progress in police forensics. He’s more like a hard-boiled journalist than a Hollywood style-maker. Over the years, he’s thus become an expert in various hidden histories: Mafia trails, narcotics networks, crime-fighting war-stories.

 
Mann gets this stuff from real people. Thief was based on tenacious months of hanging around Chicago criminals (four thieves ended up playing roles in the film). The crime-control centres seen in Manhunter are FBI labs. (In fact, their proprietors liked Mann so much, the FBI fought the CIA over attempts to block Camarena.) Mann mixes with cops and plain folk as easily as with stars; his screen world may be stylised, but the guy who creates it is down-to-earth.

Yet he admits the heady nature of wielding media power. “It first hit me one Tuesday night in 1976, when an hour-long Police Story I had written aired. The next morning I walk into 7-11 to buy cigarettes. And I hear the guy behind the counter using this phrase which I had invented! A phrase that had been on TV less than 24 hours before!” He leans forward intently. “People’s response to TV and film is a very multiplex phenomenon. So if you neglect any part of film, you’re neglecting part of what is possible. It’s really wild, but every part of any film is active. A sound here will change your sense of a shape which appears seconds later.”

Mann’s marriage of music, casting and colour schemes is legendary. In 1981, on Thief, he choreographed a night-time robbery to music by Tangerine Dream. His racy, stylish Miami Vice produced the slogan “designer TV.” But the best example of tour-de-force Mann remains the finale of Manhunter: in which a serial killer pursues a blind girl through his flamboyant home—for the eighteen—minute duration of Iron Butterfly’s “Inna-Gadda-da-Vida.”

Mann says that film was his biggest challenge to date. “Because I didn’t want to ever show the actual crimes. Instead, I wanted people gasping, “Oh, my God, I know that man!” As ever, his answer was found through inspired casting and cinematography. Tall, albino actor Tom Noonan became, like Frankenstein’s monster, an eerily sympathetic killer. And the final sequence was shot without a single right angle. “Everything you see is off-kilter, everything is acute.”

 
Mann’s aesthetic has always fuelled debates about storytelling. Many critics think his dynamic imagery usurps dialogue. Others feel Mann has “modernist cool,” or that he invented “high-tech TV.” Few of either persuasion, however, seem to notice his actual themes: which can range from critiques of middle-class drug consumption to ruminating on the tie between between money and machismo. Mann likes his politics as hot and controversial as his mise-en-scene. And the Columbus Quincentenary offers perfect timing for his Last of the Mohicans. What better moment could there be to challenge frontier cliché—and produce a new portrait of the First American Hero?

Daniel Day-Lewis loves the idea. He relishes the difference between his Hawkeye and John Wayne or Sam Shepard. “This was the moment,” he says, “just before land-hunger. Just before the pushing-inward of native tribes had really begun. This was a time when, just for a moment, people knew how to live with each other. They knew the human politics of it, the day-to-day language of coexistence.”

He glances at a production still, a picture of Hawkeye standing with his Indian brother Uncas. “The ‘frontier hero’,” he says, “has always been thought of as an existential loner, some guy who lives just to exert himself in war. But the real roots of that warrior image are profoundly different. The native American warrior used his strength to serve his family, his tribe and the life of his nation.”

As Vice alumnus Don Johnson puts it, “Michael Mann is a heavyweight, a serious populist artist.” Adds black director Bill Duke, who helmed this year’s hit Deep Cover, “He’s one of the most brilliant innovators the media’s seen. Ever. And he’s courageous: he takes on heavy issues. Sure, he may have put some of those forward in a pop format. But, in order to do that, you’ve got to care in the first place.”

Mann’s contradictory qualities—endless obsession with detail balanced by love for immersion in the moment—can produce, on film, the perfect modern marriage. But, adds Daniel Day-Lewis, there is an equally central factor which makes Mann unique. “Michael isn’t threatened at all by other people’s imaginations. In fact, it gives him pleasure to see where their ideas differ from his.” Day-Lewis’ raises one dark eyebrow. “In this business, I don’t have to tell you how rare that is.”

 

THE MAKING OF ‘LAST OF THE MOHICANS’

How Daniel Day-Lewis became Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans. Rare behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Mann, Madeleine Stowe. This documentary can be found on the 2010 Blu-ray release of the Director’s Definitive Cut of The Last of the Mohicans. Needless to say, a must have on your shelf.

 

Legendary director of photography Dante Spinotti (The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, L.A. Confidential) talks about his arrival on the set of The Last of the Mohicans.

Michael Mann called and spoke with me about this film, and he sent me the screenplay. What else would you want from life than a chance to film a great story set in 1700? Michael’s visual references included a couple of paintings, including Thomas Cole and Alfred Bierstadt. This is very typical of Michael. He shows you a simple image and says, ‘this is the movie.’ The paintings all showed how small human beings are in the scope of nature. Michael wanted everything to be extremely accurate. He offered me the picture, but it took a lot of time for him to put this project together. While I was waiting, Gary Marshall offered me a film called Frankie and Johnny. That was the film, which finally allowed me to get into the camera Guild. That opportunity was very important to me. It enabled me to work on other films in Hollywood, and also because I was always connected to union activities in Europe. Gary Marshall is a wonderful director and human being. A few weeks after we finished Frankie and Johnny, I was in Rome.

One of the producers called and said Michael Mann wanted me to shoot The Last of the Mohicans. They booked me on a Concorde on a three-hour flight on Friday night. I was jet-lagged when I arrived and saw this amazing set of a British fort with actors dressed in military uniforms from 1700. All of our lighting was going to be based on sun and moonlight bonfires, torches and candles. There was a wonderful cast, including Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe. Michael said he wanted was to keep the look monochromatic. One of the scenes that I was happiest with reproduced the pounding power of a waterfall in an interior shot set in a cave at night. You can’t see the waterfall, but you can feel its immense power in the pounding water on the faces of the actors. We bounced light from a couple of 4K Xenon’s with some big 12 x12 Mylar frames that a grip was shaking in front of them. You can see the pattern of moving light on the faces and feel the power of the waterfall. —Dante Spinotti

 

LES RÉALISATEURS: MICHAEL MANN

“An excellent documentary of key scenes with Michael Mann and actors. For as long as these videos are available online, you can treat yourself to some old but powerful Michael Mann interviews with some of our best loved Michael Mann scenes. This is wonderful footage, including actor interviews about the Tiger scene from Manhunter and that extraordinarily charged cliff scene in Last of the Mohicans. It includes scenes from Heat, and also The Insider. Actors speak about who they feel Michael Mann is, with some superb quotes to take away that sum up our favourite director. Get Michael Mann’s inside story. Essential viewing, enjoy.” —MannFan

 

MICHAEL MANN ON FILMMAKING

How does Michael Mann make films? And what are his influences in that approach? What does making films mean to him?

 

AN EVENING WITH MICHAEL MANN

Michael Mann is a master of the modern urban noir, with a unique brand of pulp poetry that is pure cinephiliac pleasure. He defined cool in the 1980s, directed some of the most highly regarded thrillers of the 1990s, and pioneered digital filmmaking in the 2000s. BAMcinématek presents this career retrospective showcasing the visionary auteur’s intelligent, stylish, and intensely entertaining films, which mark an uncompromising commitment to aesthetic perfection and an almost obsessive exploration of his key archetype: the renegade antihero who plays by his own rules. Watch the entire conversation between director Michael Mann and Village Voice film critic Bilge Ebiri from February 11, 2016 event, part of the full-career retrospective Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans. Photographed by Frank Connor & Curtis Gaston © Morgan Creek Entertainment Group, Twentieth Century Fox, Mohican Press Web Site. With special thanks to Curtis Gaston, Elaine & Rich; Mohican Press (Guide book STILL available—order now). Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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  • Asad Butt

    Superb film, not a weak link in the crew or cast. The script, music and photography all fit perfectly together.