“The Last of the Mohicans,” a rapturous revision of the schoolroom classic, follows the trail blazed by “Dances With Wolves” and more recently “Unforgiven.” A rousing frontier saga drawn from James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Leatherstocking Tales,” it looks back with longing on the savage Eden of 18th-century America, a lush old-growth wilderness from which mountains rise like sleeping giants wreathed in cloud. Painstakingly, breathtakingly re-created by director Michael Mann, this landscape makes room for heroes with principles greater than the circumference of their biceps — lean, smoldering, woodsy-smelling men.
Set in the 1750s during the French and Indian War, “The Last of the Mohicans” looks not only at the glorious possibilities of the New World, but at the violent collision of cultures that marked the beginning of European domination of the continent. The explosion brought about a sturdy hybrid represented by Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), the European-born adopted son of the patrician Mohican Chingachgook. That’s not to say that Day-Lewis’s portrait of Hawkeye isn’t just a little bit Hollywood. A cross between Iron John and romance-novel cover boy Favio, the cerebral Brit promises to do for big hair what Don Johnson did for beard stubble in Mann’s designer cop drama, TV’s “Miami Vice.”
Part modern romance, part historical re-creation, the story no longer has much to do with Cooper’s original, which Mann slammed as plodding, racist and shallow — especially when it came to its characterizations of Native Americans. Credited with the concept of the noble savage, Cooper would scarcely recognize Chingachgook, wonderfully played by American Indian Movement leader Russell Means. The story is based more on Randolph Scott’s 1936 film of the same title, but Hawkeye has evolved from a celibate colonialist into a corset-popping proto-democrat.
Not that the movie pounds the drum for political correctness. Mann will have none of that buffalo bull. With the help of co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe, he’s populated the film with cruel, jealous, lovesick, vengeful, worldly, proud, wealthy humans who happen to have sharp cheekbones and tobacco-colored skin. Neither as cuddly as the tribes of “Dances With Wolves” nor as bloodthirsty as those in “Black Robe,” they are nevertheless ruthless in combat.
Day-Lewis finds a dynamic match in Madeleine Stowe, who plays Cora Munro, the cultured daughter of the English officer in charge of Fort William Henry. Newly arrived in the Colonies, Cora and her younger sister Alice (Jodhi May) are rescued from a Huron war party by Hawkeye, his handsome brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) and Chingachgook, who hear their screams from a camp in the woods nearby. The three then accompany the women to Fort William Henry (rebuilt based on period documentation), which they find besieged by the French and their Huron allies. The small party slips through enemy lines into an “Apocalypse Now” of the period.
Despite the heroic efforts of the British and their Mohawk allies, the fort falls to the French when Col. Munro (Maurice Roeves) surrenders to Gen. Montcalm (Patrice Chereau). Montcalm’s terms are generous: The British simply abandon the fort, return to their homes and fight no more. But Montcalm hadn’t counted (or had he?) on the actions of his ally, Magua (Wes Studi), the Huron war captain who plots the massacre of the retreating troops, their women and children.
Many of the scenes, the massacre among them, are not for the squeamish; tomahawks and hunting knives leave especially gruesome wounds. Scalping is also graphically depicted, as is a particularly nasty form of heart surgery reminiscent of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” But this is after all a war movie — it aims for smoke-snorting action with time out for some heavy smoldering. And happily Hawkeye is as good at smoldering as he is at loading a flintlock.
Indeed the movie sets new standards when it comes to pent-up passion between not only Cora and Hawkeye, but also between Alice and Uncas, who have their own bodices to burst. The four of them look into the camera with such a burning yearning, it’s amazing the lens didn’t melt all over the sets (which are authentically dressed down to the porcupine-quill knife sheaths). There’s nothing explicit, but talk about his-and-hers heaving bosoms, the hearts within hammering to Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman’s gorgeous epic score.
And if that isn’t enough, there’s the spectacular scenery: North Carolina’s mysterious Smoky Mountains, which protect one of the nation’s last two old-growth forests, stand in for the New York wilderness Cooper described. Of course, the movie’s all the more poignant simply because that rugged paradise doesn’t really exist anymore. In the real world, there are tacky souvenir shops and cheap motels down below. Mann’s major achievement is that for two hours or so, he and his characters seem to have forgotten all that. They’ve thrown themselves into the project with urgency of a bucket squad at a barn fire.
Mann, who’s best known for such urban crime dramas as “Vice” and “Manhunter,” is equally at home whether the chase concerns a cigarette boat or a birch-bark canoe. He brings the same flair pairing action and style to “The Last of the Mohicans,” an attempt to resurrect and redefine the American hero. What were his values really? Mann theorizes that they were less European than Mohican, with an emphasis on the concept that no man has dominion over another.