The success of 1990’s Dances With Wolves showed that there was an audience for a new kind of Indian movie—a romantic epic about a noble people, a virgin environment and a white warrior who goes native. Now, in a lavish new version of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Hollywood has resurrected Hawkeye, one of American fiction’s original frontier heroes. A white orphan raised by Indians, he is a hybrid of the noble savage and the Yankee pioneer. Previous screen versions of Cooper’s novel include a 1936 movie starring Randolph Scott, and Hawkeye, a 1957 TV series shot in the wilds of Toronto, with Lon Chaney Jr. masquerading as an Indian. By contrast, the new movie aims for historical authenticity and features Indian actors in Indian roles. But Hawkeye himself is portrayed by British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, speaking with an erratic American accent. And despite breathtaking scenery, fast-paced action and painstaking period detail, the drama seems hollow at the core—a spectacle that lacks substance.
The movie’s U.S. director, Michael Mann, certainly refines the art of frontier violence. Mann does for the tomahawk what he did for the machine-gun in Miami Vice, the TV series that he created. The battle scenes are thrilling. And although Lewis occasionally sounds stilted, physically he makes a compelling Hawkeye. The actor, who won an
Oscar for his contortions as a cerebral palsy sufferer in My Left Foot (1989), has somehow transformed his spare frame into a fierce vision of sinewed, animal intensity.
The story, meanwhile, is an overheated blend of violence and romance. It is set in 1757, in the forests of what is now the northeastern United States. The French and their Indian allies are at war with the British. After rescuing British troops from a Huron ambush, Hawkeye agrees to guide Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) to their father, the British commander. Hawkeye falls in love with Cora and runs afoul of her father. But the real villain is Magua, a vengeful Huron leader played with impressive vitriol by Cherokee Wes Studi, who portrayed a marauding Pawnee warrior in Dances With Wolves.
The film-makers have chipped away the rough edges of sexism and racism in Cooper’s novel. And novice actor Russell Means, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, gives the movie a stamp of legitimacy with his solid performance as Chingachgook, Hawkeye’s adoptive Mohican father. But the love story has the counterfeit ring of a Harlequin romance. And although the violence is gripping, it adds up to a lot of savage excitement for its own sake. Despite its earnest revisionism, the new Last of the Mohicans is still an old-fashioned spectacle of a white hero defending his woman from a gang of bloodthirsty Indians.
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