26 January 2011

Movie Adaptations: Last of the Mohicans

By Karen Mercury

This is my all-time favorite historical romantic adventure movie. The story is epic in nature--big, bold, and gloriously sweeping. It's about the love of Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), the adopted Mohican, and Cora (Madeleine Stowe), as war and tragedy swirl around them and they struggle to find their own private peace. Hawkeye is definitely not named Natty Bumppo, as in the book by, probably because the director (Michael Mann) realized how asinine that name sounds to our ears now.

Many supposed it was a pointless literary folly to make a film from such a famously unreadable and dense book, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Mohicans." Daniel Day-Lewis signed on because he liked American history and wanted to play an iconic character that would challenge him. The success of the movie as a romantic adventure is probably due in no small part to the effort he went into creating the role--the workouts, the running, hand-to-hand fighting, even making his own weapons. Day-Lewis underwent a rigorous schedule of fitness training to build muscle, and a six month study of wilderness skills, from tracking animals and building canoes to fighting with tomahawks and loading and firing a flintlock on the run.

Set in upstate New York during the French and Indian War, The Last of the Mohicans follows Colonel Edmund Munro's daughters, the strong-willed beauty Cora and Alice as they travel to their father's fort. The treacherous Magua is their guide, and has a vendetta against the grey-haired colonel. Magua: "When the Grey Hair is dead, Magua will eat his heart. Before he dies, Magua will put his children under the knife, so the Grey Hair will know his seed is wiped out forever."

When their party is ambushed, a group of fur trappers, led by superb frontiersman Hawkeye, escorts the two women to the fort. Hawkeye travels with the Delaware chief Chingachgook, and his Mohican brother Uncas, tracking by noting marks on rocks and broken twigs. Hawkeye is the iconic son of Mother Nature in buckskin, all buffed and manscaped chest, uttering such classic lines with a disgusted curl to his lip:
British Officer: You call yourself a patriot, and loyal subject to the Crown?
Hawkeye: I do not call myself subject to much at all.
And my favorite line of all:
Duncan: I'll have you beaten from this fort!
Hawkeye: Someday, I think you and I are going to have a serious disagreement.
Director Michael Mann remains faithful to the essential spirit of Cooper's work, and actually improves upon it. Hawkeye becomes more human than the cardboard hero in Cooper's romance. In the film, the hero falls in love and swears a little. And the chemistry between Hawkeye and Cora is intoxicating:

Cora Munro: What are you looking at, sir?
Hawkeye: I'm looking at you, miss.
While stargazing, Cora expresses to Hawkeye her passion for the American wilderness: "It is more stirring to my blood than any imagining could possibly be." Though the romance is never made plain in Cooper's novel, we now see that Cora and Hawkeye are soul mates. It's just a question of whether they will live long enough for them to cement their bond.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe are both very believable as strong, independent frontier sorts. The passion they have for the land and for each other is palpable. You've probably seen the trailer with the scene under the waterfall, when Hawkeye tells Cora to "Stay alive. Just stay alive! Survive! I will find you!" before leaping in slow motion into the river. Most women say this scene is their favorite--that the vision of Hawkeye singling her out and vowing to rescue her alone is the ultimate in romance.

The scenes of British society in the American landscape have a thoughtfully composed elegance that resemble Old Master paintings. Though set in upstate New York, Mann took his production to North Carolina and the Appalachian mountains to find rugged wilderness. They needed over a thousand extras, including hundreds of Indians which Mann cast with mostly Iroquois. Indian rights activist Russell Means made his screen debut as Chingachgook, a small and central role as the titular "Last of the Mohicans."

The Last of the Mohicans races through its narrative with the adventurous spirit so unfortunately absent from Cooper's clumsy and simple novel.

What is your favorite historical adventure romance?

Karen Mercury's first three historicals, including STRANGELY WONDERFUL were set in precolonial Africa. Her latest, WORKING THE LODE, is an erotic romance set during the California gold rush. Available now!


librarypat said...

This is my all time favorite movie. My son has watched it more times than I care to think. When we watched the DVD version he stopped it and informed me they had changed something from the VHS version. He has the whole movie dialogue memorized.

I think the relationship in the movie is one of the most romantic of any I have watched.

I grew up in the Adirondacks and now live in TN not far from where they filmed the movie in NC. I will admit the locale worked visually just fine for the film. But the Adirondack has some forever wild areas and has many beautiful areas where they could have filmed the movie. The trees and underbrush would have been more accurate an d it would have given it a slightly different feel.

Thanks for highlighting this movie today.

Blythe Gifford said...

I can't believe I've never seen this one. You've inspired me! Must see...

Carrie Lofty said...

I did a thesis in college about the differences between this adaptation and the original novel. In the novel, the Hayward marries Alice. They're both blond, and Alice is a suitable match...because Cora is actually part black. Her father had conceived a child with a former slave while stationed in the Caribbean. Cora is aware of her heritage, which is why she rejects Hayward. She's actually the one who forms an attachment to Hawkeye's adopted Mohican brother, Uncas. Both she and Uncas die, because you wouldn't want the people of color to have a happy ending. The blond folks have their HEA, and Hawkeye, the symbol of all things manly and independent, heads out into the woods on his own.


Flash forward a century and a half. The nasty Brit redeems himself by throwing himself on the burning altar of honor. Hawkeye is the stud who gets the resourceful smart chick. No mention is made of Cora being born of a slave woman, so they wind up looking like two nicely tanned white folks with pretty hair. Uncas's unspoken attraction, this time to fair Alice, is as doomed now as it was back in Cooper's time. Some things change, and some things remain the same.

So yeah, FABULOUS film that comes from deeply interesting and occasionally troubling stock. I'm actually teaching a week-long course on it in April!

Ruby Duvall said...

I'm so happy to see a post about "Last of the Mohicans"! Karen, you've nailed it with that swoon-inducing line of "I will find you!" And wasn't Uncas completely gorgeous? I don't own many DVDs anymore (Netflix all the way!), but this movie is one I had to have and still watch when I need some epic romance.

Karen Mercury said...

Carrie, I remember hearing that about Cora being part black. Oh man, that scene where Duncan is being burned alive, that scene is etched into my memory banks! Chilling and deeply moving.

That's so funny though--older movies *always* have the black guy dying first. It's like he wore a red shirt or something--oops, a black guy, well, he's dead. I haven't noticed that in any recent movies, maybe b/c it became such a cliche.

Zoe Archer said...

Um, wasn't "Last of the Mohicans" written by James Fennimore Cooper, not Nathaniel Hawthorne?

Anonymous said...

You are correct- "Last of the Mohicans" was not written by Nathanial Hawthorne but by James Fenimore Cooper. Awesome movie - one of my favorites. Just finished watching it again a few minutes ago. :-) Thanks for the history on it - have never read the novel, but now I intend to.

Carla Olson Gade said...

I think I'd like to watch this again!
Thank you for the great post.


Ruby said...

Have Read the book, have not seen the movie!! (What to.)

Anonymous said...

I am reading the book and instead Cora and Uncas have a "relationship" rather than Cora and Hawkeye. And both Cora and Uncas die, and then Hayward marries Alice. I am going to see the movie, i just wanted to see how different it was... XD And i guess it kind of is different

Dave Eaton said...

After reading the novel "Last of the Mohicans", I couldnt wait to see the movie. I was totally enthralled with the book. To me the story that Cooper laid out was amazing. After watching the movie though I was very saddended to see the changes made to the story line. Looking for a truer adaptation I watched the 1932 movie version with Randolpf Scott as Hawkeye, and found it to be pretty much the same plot as the 1992 version. Almost as if it was a remake of the 36 movie rather than a fresh story true to the novel. The Leatherstocking Tales of JF Cooper are some of the greatest stories ever put to pen, and it's too bad that Hollywood dosent have the abilty to reflect with interest, the stories the way they were meant to be told.

Dan Pellicone said...

In search of commentary regarding James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" vs Mann's movie of the same title I stumbled across this site. I was not looking for a review of the movie that of which it seems was given. There is not one comparison of the movie to Cooper's literary work, in fact, a single comment from a reader gave a more precise comparison that the author failed to attempt at. It is very evident that the author made no attempt to even browse the "famously unreadable, dense, clumsy and simple novel" much less take time to read the work. For instance, "Natty Bumppo" is only referred to once in the book's introductional pages. The remaining work refers to the hero as any one of the familiar cinematic names such as Nathaniel (his birth name) or Hawkeye. The novel further gives an additional name as was mentioned by another commentor, La Longue Carabine (given by his Huron enemies). This last name establishes Hawkeye's infamous reputation among the Iroquois due to the unusually long rifle he keeps at his side and affectionately calls Killdeer, that of which he was awarded by his protectorates in the prequel novel "The Deerslayer". Further to the point, the movie adaptation does in fact use a version of Hawkeye's birth name where Cora does consistently call him Nathaniel (Natty for short) and at one point refers to him as Mr. Poe (Bumppo). In regards to the silly surname, it is described in "The Deerslayer" that the dimestore name is not worthy of the skill of the one who holds it as Nathaniel himself notes, "Bumppo has no lofty sound, I admit; and yet men have bumped through the world with it". As for names, the Delaware have had many for Nathaniel in order of youth to manhood starting with Straight-tongue followed by The Pigeon, then Lap-ear and finally Deerslayer to be succeeded by Hawkeye though not given by his Delaware brethren but the first man he had killed in battle. I will concede that the literary inspiration of the movie can be difficult to read however once one identifies the rhythm of the narrative the work will reveal that it is as enjoyable if not more so than the cinematic version of "The Last of the Mohicans".