Monday, October 25, 2010

Last of the Mohicans (1992)

The last time I saw this one must have either been on a tiny TV or on VHS (or both).  At the time it didn't do much for me at all.  I didn't care about the love story, and the action didn't grab me either.  Last night Amy and I revisited the movie on Blu-Ray and a 40" hi-def TV, and it's remarkable what a difference that makes.

Last of the Mohicans was directed by Michael Mann, who knows how to make a good movie and frame an interesting action scene.  I like Heat and Collateral all around; Miami Vice sucked so hard the back of its head caved in, and Public Enemies was a big disappointment, though they both have great action scenes.  Mann makes great use of location shooting, and I love him for it.  In fact, now that I think of it, his locations and photography pull a lot of weight in the effectiveness of each of his films.  In stark contrast to the urban jungle of LA, Mohicans opens with some beautiful mountain-top views of the dense forests of North Carolina.  It then cuts to the dense and lush forest floor, as three characters charge through on a hunt.  As the movie continues we are treated again and again to beautiful unique real locations.  The fort is the only rather visually boring location; it's ugly and full of the "blossoming romance" scenes which still don't really grab me (though a generation of women from 1992 would like to fight me here, I'm sure).  But once the story gets back to the forest we're subjected to more natural beauty.

Then there's the action.  It's hard to make musket fights exciting, because "aim, fire, reload for 60 seconds" doesn't make for thrilling cinema.  Fortunately, the Indians all fight with clubs, knifes, and tomahawks in addition to muskets, and Mann's people choreographed some pretty cool fights that I'm going to revisit as I draw my book.  Mann also adds a unique sense of horror to these fights.  It's not just a choreographed "hack-block-hack," they usually open in a startling way.  The earlier battle when Magua betrays the party he's leading by calmly walking to the back of the column and clubbing a guy over the head is still a shocking moment.  Later, the entourage from the fort is making their way through a narrow valley and a Huron warrior suddenly bursts from the woods and performs a similar execution, and it's equally terrifying.  During the ensuing fight there's a first person shot of Hawkeye braining a Huron who was threatening his girlfriend.  The set-up shot shows the Huron reaching the woman, the next shows Hawkeye seeing this from a short ways away, cut to Huron preparing to execute woman but turning towards the camera, cut to HAWKEYE CLUBBING THE CAMERA IN THE LENS.  Great stuff.

When I watched it for the first time I was warned that it had some gruesome moments.  I'd forgotten all about that warning until we were in the middle of the movie last night, and marveled that the 18 years that have passed haven't really dulled the brutality at all.  It was especially noticeable because my general perception was that the movie was a love story that chicks went ga-ga over.  There are scalpings and hearts cut out and axes to the back and, most memorably, Magua's final fight with Chingachgook on the cliff, where bones are broken and stomachs torn out.

And of course there is the cast.  Daniel Day-Lewis is the big name.  Here's the thing: his performance is fine.  Great, even.  He embodies the character well.  But it's hard to compare with his later roles in In the Name of the Father, Gangs of New York or There Will Be Blood.  I think it's because those later characters had accents, eccentricities, and other unique performance-based quirks, whereas Hawkeye is simply a stoic and resolute hero with a basic American accent.  He's not quirky and he's not a scene-chewer.  I tried viewing his Mohican's performance with a more careful eye, tried to consider certain choices and deliveries, but it's tougher when the role is much subtler than the others I've mentioned.  There's a making-of documentary that's new to the Blu-Ray and gets into Lewis' prep for the role.  I tell you what, it looked like a ton of fun.  Days and days of learning survival skills, hunting, tracking and the like.  Even stuff like learning how to reload a black-powder musket on the run!  (When watching the scene, I too cried "baloney!", but the documentary reveals that Lewis thought the same thing until they found a guy who could do it.)

I appreciate the movie much more now, having seen it on Blu-Ray.  The locations are more stunning, the score more vibrant, the framing and colors more painterly.  I'm enjoying taking new looks at films on the format, because it is often like seeing them for the first time.  You lose a lot watching movies like this 4:3 on a 32" TV.  Even DVD doesn't come very close to replicating the true colors and detail of a period piece like this.  Mohicans didn't suddenly rise to the top of my list of favorites, but it certainly rose quite a few steps from the obscure "who cares?" section it previously occupied.

One last note: bonus points for featuring a few seconds of original American Indian lacrosse!  Only movie ever to depict it, and probably will remain so.

(Screenshot swiped from


_Shane said...

Funny you wrote about this... I re-watched this for the first time in a long time last week too. I really enjoyed it. I didn't see the new Blu-ray version but I enjoyed revisiting it none-the-less. Watching it I had to remind myself that the film is close to 20 years old. It's refreshing to see some good ol' fashioned film making that doesn't rely on CG to create a world for a film. If you liked the cinematography and setting in this film you should see Terrence Malick's The New World. (I have a feeling you wouldn't like that film though.) In your list of Mann films you are missing his greatest film (IMHO) The Insider. I hope that it comes to Blu-ray soon too!

Ryan said...

I've seen The New World and loved the scenery. The story and Malick's love for showing characters walking around while a VO recites some poetry doesn't quite excite me like it does his legion of fans, but the visuals and music in New World make it worth watching. Thin Red Line is similar.

You're right, I left off The Insider, one of my favorites of his! However, even though I forgot it, I don't think it belongs in the post because it lacks the outdoor setting that the others have.

jeric2003 said...

Dangit, I STILL haven't seen this movie. I read the book a couple years ago and wanted to get some distance before watching the movie because I know there are some significant differences. As a huge Day-Lewis fan, though, I can't believe I've never seen this movie.

Ryan said...

What?? Jeri, I can't believe it! The Daniel Day thing I thought made it a given! He's shirtless, for cryin' out loud!

jeric2003 said...

You guys will have to let me come over sometime while you're doing something else and let me watch it on BR. :)

Ryan said...

I don't own it yet, just rented it, but as soon as it gets around $10 I'll pick it up and you're welcome to come over.