Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Last of the Mohicans

1992, US, directed by Michael Mann

Like so many of Michael Mann's films, The Last of the Mohicans depicts men at work, here engaged in the messy business of the the defence of their homes, as well as resistance to outside military rule. Although the film abandons the often claustrophobic confines of Thief and Manhunter for the forests of America in pre-revolutionary times, the locales are similarly fraught with danger; the woods are depicted as a place of sudden and even savage violence that can erupt at any moment to engulf the unwary.

From the opening scenes, it is clear that action as much as words will define this story: the film begins with a tremendous race through the forest, as viscerally exciting as any car pursuit, accompanied, as so often in Mann's films, by an intense and memorable score. That sequence and a bloody encounter which follows shortly thereafter deftly sketch in the three primary male characters (played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Means and Eric Schweig). As if to underline the ways in which these men define their skills, one of the trio has an almost wordless part, while all three prefer to remain silent unless there's something of importance to share.

It's hard to avoid the thought that there's a occasionally a certain amount of romanticization at work here, with the depiction of a prelapsarian idyll into which outside forces intrude. However, as the film progresses Mann's depiction becomes more sophisticated, with the Native Americans far from monolithic, and capable, where it suits them, of forming political alliances to play the French and British off each other for their own ends. The film also depicts their exceptional tactical intelligence, in ways which frequently surprise the colonising forces, and strip bare the latter's tactics.
As elsewhere in Mann's work, the film turns most of all on different notions of honour, which overlap and sometimes conflict with one another. The main narrative thread is motivated by one kind of basic honorable action, that of protecting the apparently weak - not to mention extending essential notions of hospitality to strangers - and that simple action draws the central trio into a much more complex web of interlocking loyalties and betrayals, through which they are constantly called on to define their own essential values.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States