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!