Summer of ’92: Cowboys and Indians

The Last of the Unforgiven Mohicans

Welcome back to Summer of 92, the summer series in which I take a look at the movies released in 1992, also known as the year I was born. If you want an overview of what I’ve covered so far, you can click HERE. Otherwise, keep reading. 

Let’s forget about fancy introductions and get right to it. On purpose of the holiday weekend, I decided to pick a double feature that would, in way or another, relate to the spirit of this most American holiday. I ended up with two movies by two very well-respected American auteurs that do get in one way or another into the conversation about American ideals and representation, but above all, seem to be exercises in which the filmmakers take a stab at examining the conventions of two of the most classical genres produced by the Hollywood industry: The romantic adventure, and, perhaps the most American of all genres, the western.

The first movie is The Last of the Mohicans, directed by the regularly masculine and action-oriented Michael Mann. The movie, as you’d recognize from the title, is based on the 1827 adventure novel by James Fenimore Cooper. However, the movie’s credits tellingly not only mention the novel as the basis for the story, but also credit the screenplay for the 1936 movie adaptation by Philip Dunne. Mann himself mentioned, at the time of the movie’s release, that the ’36 movie was one of his earliest and fondest film-going memories. Having not seen that movie, but having tried (and failed) to read Cooper’s novel before writing this review, I have to say that I can see how Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans’ spirit resembles that of a classic Hollywood swashbuckler much more than that of Cooper’s rather old-fashioned writing.

The story, set at the time of the conflict known as the French-and-Indian War (if you’re an American) or the American Theater of the Seven Years War (if you’re not American), is exactly what early talky adventures were made of, as the daughters of an English Colonel and the British company they are traveling with are attacked by a tribe of Huron indians before being saved by a trio of Mohican scouts, one of them a white man, adopted and raised in the native ways, named Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ Poe, and played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Sporting the long, black hair that characterized him at the hunkiest point of his career, Day-Lewis looks like a perfect matinee idol, but he wanted his performance to be something other than a charismatic star-turn. In true Day-Lewis fashion, he went through a long process in which he learned wilderness survival immersing him in the role years before he got pneumonia in the set of Gangs of New York and took coffee breaks in character as the 16th President on the set of Lincoln. 

The lead actor wasn’t the only one trying to go for a higher level of veracity in this picture. Mann also took extreme measures to make sure that the movie would look as historically accurate as possible. A lot was said, at the time of the movie’s release, about the lengths to which the production had gone in order to perfect the look of the costumes, sets, and Native American makeup. Mann is nothing if not a highly stylized director, so it makes sense that, having been handed lots of money by a major Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox, to be exact) to make a historical epic, he would try to do something special in terms of the look and feel of the movie. This was an incredibly committed production, so the obvious question is whether or not that made a difference int he final product. The short answer is “not really”. For all of The Last of the Mohicans’ merits, the extreme commitment of its lead actor and the design team are not exactly one of them, or at least not the one that makes the biggest impression .

Just to make clear, the movie’s weakness -if you want to call it that- is that the story it’s telling is a simple, pulpy, and rather generic one. I am guessing the filmmakers recognized how flawed the original novel was, and thanks to Mann’s predilection for the thirties movie adaptation, decided to treat the source material as it would have been treated back in the golden age of Hollywood talkies, which is to say as a canvas that is there to serve the creation of an effective action picture. The plot moves relatively quickly from one plot point to another as our characters make their way through the New York wilderness, leaving as little space as possible for the characters to develop, or talk to each other in a way that we would recognize what archetypical character arc they are having. The romantic relationship between Hawkeye and Cora (Madeline Stowe), for example, seems to develop just because that is what would happen in a movie, and not necessarily from a character point of view, or at least not one that is both pointed out by the script and supported by the performances.

Another difference from the source material, and one that feels very much influenced by early-nineties political correctness, as well as the popularity of Dances with Wolves, is the movie’s treatment of its Native American characters, which is much more nuanced and not as pro-European as the original novel. This is particularly evident in the character of Magua (Wes Studi), who is basically the main antagonist, but is one of the few characters that is given the opportunity to have a monologue explaining all that there is to him, and more importantly, the horrific experiences perpetuated by the British that made him decide to take revenge. Studi gives the best performance in the movie, somehow allowing Magua to not feel like either an “evil savage” or a “noble savage” stereotype. He not only feels like a human being (which is sadly rare when you’re dealing with Native American characters), but he is the most interesting one. It is actually the case that Studi’s performance is so good that it is kind of hard, in the last minutes of the movie, when Magua unambiguously becomes the villain, to root for the bland heroes, when he is a much more interesting character.

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Wes Studi as the merciless Magua in ‘The Last of the Mohicans’

The blandness of most of its characters is definitely a problem for the movie, which could benefit from a little more liveliness at its center. Although liveliness was not what the filmmakers were going for. Like I said many times, Mann was looking for authenticity, and while the story of the movie ends up not being the perfect avenue for said vision, the movie is definitely shot to realize the director’s intentions. The cinematography, by Dante Spinotti, does something rather outstanding in the way it can be both incredibly beautiful and incredibly down-to-earth realistic at the same time. The photography highlights the majestic landscapes of North Carolina (that stand in for upstate New York) and makes the colors -especially green, yellow, and red- pop with elegant intensity. However, the matter-of-factness of the camera angles, and the use of camera movement only for the more kinetic action moments instead of lavish panoramic views make the movie feel different from the typical lavish period pieces of the late-eighties and early-nineties. There are lots and lots of beautiful images to behold, but they don’t feel stuffy and overtly pre-produced, they seem devoted to the randomness of nature.

This is because the cinematography is not only there to make the movie look beautiful. The Last of the Mohicans, however improbable, is one of the best action movies of the early nineties, and one that was foreshadowing Michael Mann’s naturalistic approach to violence and action, which would become more obviously auteuristic in future movies such as Heat and Collateral. In this case, the movie doesn’t, at first glance, look too different from other action movies of the time. It’s not so much in its author’s iconoclasm that the action feels distinctive, but simply in its technical superiority. The use of sound, and the editing, are simply superior. I’ve watched many 1992 movies for this project already, and there is no denying that, of the ones that feature an action element, this one is by far the most accomplished. I mean, there is no comparing the stagy and theatrical action of something like Batman Returns to the kinetic force of The Last of the Mohicans.  

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Cinematographer Dante Spinotti showcases the North Carolinian landscape in ‘The Last of the Mohicans’.

Mann was trying to take this romantic adventure and make the most realistic and historically accurate movie possible. On a technical side, he succeeded, but the swashbuckling spirit of the story made it remain exactly that. An effective entertainment, a solid action movie, but not necessarily deep or noteworthy in its themes or its in content. He didn’t exactly subvert the staples of the classic adventure genre, even though he made an adventure movie that felt, definitely, different to those that had come before. Meanwhile that same year, none other than Clint Eastwood, the iconic face of the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, was similarly trying to put another face on a well established genre. By the 1990s the western had definitely fallen out of favor with the public, even if it never had been truly dead, and filmmakers were constantly trying for the genre to have a comeback. Unforgiven came out not too long after Dances with Wolves, which was a very successful movie that could be described as a revisionist western, since it featured a distinctly modern sensibility, especially in its treatment of the Native American characters. Eastwood’s movie was revisionist in another way. It was a much darker story, and one that wasn’t as much concerned with modern inclusive politics as with the long history of violence in a genre that, for many decades, had been telling the story of the construction of the most powerful country in the world.

A plot description of Unforgiven might make it sound like a typical action movie in which a weary older gunslinger, in this case one Will Munny played by Eastwood himself, comes out of retirement for one last job. However, the power of the movie, and the reason it was praised at the time, lies in its desire to remove any kind of heroism from the proceedings. The reason Will comes out of retirement is to claim a bounty offered by a group of whores after one of them had her face cut by two violent cowboys. One of the movie’s mysteries is why exactly Will decides to go off on this final job. It seems like he feels some sort of special disdain for the mistreatment of women, but there is an undercurrent makes us think the bounty might have been enough. In any case, the important thing is the characterization of Will Munny. The movie takes some time to introduce us to him, but we hear about him (and see him in silhouette) in the very first shot, a beautifully spare sunset landscape in which we see the small figure of a man digging a grave. We learn that this is Will Munny, that he is known for being a cold-blooded murderer, and that he is burying his wife.

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The opening shot of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’

The idea that Eastwood would play a character such as Will Munny might have been revelatory and refreshing at the time. The actor, and his movies, had long been criticized for being too violent, but with Unforgiven, a dark and violent movie itself, Eastwood seemed to reveal that he was as disgusted and haunted by the violence of his past as Will Munny is with his. Unforgiven is all about the characters’ relationship with violence. Munny is incredibly good (and lucky) when it comes to killing people, but his violent past is now a cross he has to bare. The companions in his mission are the Kid, James Woolvett, a clueless young man who idolizes the violence and spirit of the old west, and his longtime friend Ned (Morgan Freeman), who even more so than Will, has grown too soft to murder someone. The intention in these characters’ depiction is clear: the west is a romantic fantasy that turns into a nightmare once it actually becomes part of your life.

It is interesting to question what exactly is Eastwood’s view of the movie. I think it is particularly telling that, while featuring people committing all kinds of horribly violent acts, the filmmaking of said actions is relatively subdued and very non-graphic. This might be because Eastwood was working with a big Hollywood studio that wanted to be able to market the movie, but I think it comes from a place of not wanting to glamorize the horrors of these characters’ actions. A great example of this, and one of my favorite scenes in the movie, comes when Will and his partners kill the first of the runaway cowboys they’re looking for. We don’t see the man get shot, but we spend a lot of time watching him die as he holds his wounded gut in his hands. We also see our heroes watching from the distance, waiting for his death, as the agonizing man desperately asks for water. There is nothing heroic or satisfying in that scene. Our heroes were hiding and caught this man by surprise in order to kill him, and even though he cut a woman’s face, his death isn’t any kind of romanticized personal vengeance, but just one more long step into claiming a bounty.

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Clint Eastwood and his partners wait for a man to die in ‘Unforgiven’

The only character who is not repelled by violence is Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman), who is pragmatic and merciless in the use of violent actions to remain in control of his town. Hackman won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, and while that category has favored a lot of villainous roles in the past, Little Bill is a little different in the kind of villainy that he represents. This might be a little bit of a stretch, but considering Eastwood’s conservative/liberarian policies, it’s telling that the evil in the movie comes from an institution, and a public figure. Little Bill is not only an abusive man in a situation of power, but a man incredibly concerned with his image and his legend. He looks like a little bit of a schlub, he occupies his time building a house, and he goes around his business in a very friendly manner, even when he is about to indulge in inhuman amounts of violence. If he isn’t a stand-in for the corruption of politicians, then I don’t know what he is.

If there is a weakness to Unforgiven –besides the fact that Eastwood isn’t the best of actors and some of his line readings are as clunky as it gets- it’s that its final confrontation feels a little too much like a triumph. Because of the rest of Unforgiven is as far from being flashy or sentimental as you can get. It is as distant and restrained as Eastwood likes to operate, while bringing in clear parallels to historically acclaimed westerns, especially through Jack N. Green’s cinematography, which is heavily inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers. Unforgiven is a cold movie, and one that works beautifully in how effective it is in telling a story in the most economical way possible. It is, without a question, the best movie Clint Eastwood ever directed, and the only one of his that I would call great. Like The Last of the Mohicans, it looks to strip-down an old genre, and bring an unprecedented level of pragmatism. The difference, of course, is that Unforgiven has much more meat in its thematic bones.

Next Week’s Double Feature: Husbands and Wives and Man Bites Dog

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