How Daniel Day-Lewis transformed Last of the Mohicans
The following post is part of a work in progress (previous posts below).
By the time director Michael Mann, and his co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe, decided to tackle Last of the Mhicans in the early 1990s, they had a treasure trove of material to work with, and fragments of these sources end up in their final product. At one point in the book, for example, Magua pretends to obediently follow Major Haywood’s instructions to slow down for Cora and Alice’s sake, but mocks him in his own language. “The pale faces make themselves dogs to their women,” he says to himself, “and when they want to eat their warriors must lay aside the tomahawk to feed their laziness.” At a similar point in the movie, Magua says, “Magua understand white man is a dog to his women. When they want to eat he puts down his tomahawk to feed their laziness.”
But the 1936 version is Mann/Crowe’s most obvious template (Philip Dunne’s 1936 screenplay is acknowledged as a basis for their movie in the credits). A number of lines, most memorably Hawkeye’s sarcastic assertion to Heyward, “Someday you and I are going to have a serious disagreement,” are imported into the 1992 version wholesale. I also like, “If your aim is as bad as your judgment, Major, I don’t imagine there’s much danger of you hitting him,” another exchange between the two characters at a moment when Heyward is unwisely attempting to shoot Magua. In 1992, the line is shortened to the scout simply pointing Haywood’s rifle down and saying “in case your aim is any better than your judgment.”
The most important precedent for the filmmakers of 1992 movie, however, was a long tradition of artistic license. Once again there’s the tweaking of names – for no especially compelling reason, Hawkeye is renamed “Nathaniel Poe” this time around – and rearranging of characters. This time, Heyward (Steven Waddington) is in love with Cora (Madeleine Stowe), not Alice (Jhodi May), while Alice pairs off with Uncas (Eric Schweig). It is also Alice, not Cora, who finds herself perched at the end of a cliff, and Alice who plunges off it (an act we associate with what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome). One reason Alice is so traumatized is that her father, Col. Monro (Maurice Roeves) dies at the hand of Magua in a notably graphic scene, instead of surviving as he does in the book or dying in battle as he does in 1936. Magua, as usual, kills Uncas, but this time it’s Chingachgook (the famed Native American activist Russell Means, in a real star turn) who dispatches him instead of Hawkeye. In keeping with a well-known historical phenomenon, the Hawkeye character this time around (who I will henceforth call Nathaniel) is actually Chingachcook’s adoptive son; Nathaniel’s parents were killed in his infancy and he was raised as a Mohican. At one point he mentions attending Reverend Wheelock School, a reference to the real-life academy founded by Eleazar Wheelock, which ultimately became Dartmouth College.
Perhaps the most crucial change in this version of Mohicans – and one of a number of things that really sets it apart from its predecessors – is the skillful way it sharpens the latent geopolitical dimension in what his typically treated as a frontier tale with a little romance in it. The character of Montcalm (Patrice Chereau, in another outstanding performance) is both appealing and ambiguous, and the elaborate rituals involving the surrender of Fort William Henry, depicted with great pomp, underlines the way in which British and French imperial officers have far more in common with each other, even as adversaries, than their respective colonial and Indian allies. Even better in this regard is the scene where Nathaniel negotiates for the release of Cora and Alice with the Tamenend figure, here an Ottawa named Ongewasgone (Dennis Banks, a founder, along with Means, of the American Indian Movement [AIM]). The only way Mohican can communicate with Ottawa is literally through the lingua franca of the eighteenth century world. So Nathaniel speaks in English to the bilingual Heyward, who translates Nathaniel’s words into the French for the Ottawa. Magua (a fabulous Wes Studi), who also knows French, gets predictably angry when he finally understands what’s being said. Ongewasgone has a final monologue in his own tongue (all this dialogue is subtitled). The scene is a pointed and useful reminder that multiculturalism was not invented in 1990.
But perhaps the most important renovation in Mohicans ’92 is the way in which Mann & Co. effectively turn it into a movie about the coming of the American Revolution. Again, the DNA for this was always there, most obviously in 1936. But the filmmakers play up the tension between local colonial militias, who are first and foremost trying to protect their homes, and the professional British military, which has its own strategic objectives. Their divergent interests become an issue when the militiamen seek to leave the fort to defend their hearths and are barred from doing so by Monro, even when Nathaniel informs him that Indian war parties are indeed ravaging local residents. “Does the rule of English law no longer govern?” asks Jack Winthrop (Edward Blatchford, playing a character unique to this movie), noting that he had been promised he would be allowed to leave in such a contingency. “Their law no longer has rightful authority over us, he says later, bitterly.” In this argument, Heyward, who has also witnessed the destruction in the countryside, nevertheless sides affirms Monro, the man he hopes will someday be his father-in-law. But his decision to so completes Cora’s tilt away from Heyward and toward Nathaniel – part of her larger Americanization (and one way in which the movie as a whole does more with its female characters than any previous incarnation of the story).
Of course, the pivotal figure in this regard – the linchpin of the movie, and that of the point I’m ring to make in this chapter – is the character of Nathaniel, more specifically the Nathaniel of Daniel Day-Lewis. This is much more than a matter of which lines of the script he utters. To put it simply, the Day-Lewis incarnation of Cooper’s creation is a magnificent creation in its own right. Though he lacks the muscularity of the typical movie-star hero, he is an impressive physical specimen: lanky but taut, strong but agile. As was becoming typical at this point in his career, Day-Lewis disappeared into the role. He worked out five times a week for six months in England before shooting commenced in Appalachian North Carolina. He also spent a month in the woods living there. Moreover, he learned to track and skin animals, build canoes, fight with tomahawks, and fire as well as re-load a flintlock rifle – which he carried with him everywhere, even to Christmas dinner.
But Nathaniel’s presence is much more than physical. Actually, the Hawkeye of all too many Mohicans – nowhere more so than Cooper’s – is something of a buffoon, a hayseed who’s not as dumb as he looks. Randolph Scott’s Hawkeye is one of the better ones, because the geniality he gives the character doesn’t undercut his sense of competence. But Day-Lewis blows all his predecessors away with his sheer intensity. More than that: it is an intensity of self-assurance. “I liked the idea of a man who had not been touched by 20th-century neurosis,” he explained later. “A life that isn’t drawn inwards.”
As such, Day-Lewis’s Nathaniel is the quintessential frontiersman. “You call yourself a patriot and loyal subject of the crown?” a sneering British officer asks at one point, wondering why Nathaniel shows no inclination to enlist in the militia. “I do not call myself subject to much at all,” he replies dryly. When Nathaniel joins the war effort, which he does provisionally, it’s for his own reasons, not the empire’s. Though he’s involved in a dangerous scheme to help the militiamen escape from the fort and return to their families, he reveals that he won’t be with them. “I got a reason to stay,” he explains. “That reason wear a striped skirt and work in the surgery?” Winthrop asks. “It does,” Nathaniel replies. “No offense, but it’s a good deal better-looking than you, Jack Winthrop.”
What follows is the great love scene of the movie between Nathaniel and Cora, conducted against one of the major musical themes of the soundtrack, which fuses a Scottish reel and a Native American drumbeat. Day-Lewis’s chemistry with Stowe was part of a demographic appeal that cut across gender lines and ensured the film’s commercial office success. But it’s also crucial to Nathaniel’s identity – and Nathaniel’s central place in Day-Lewis’s gallery of American character portraits. Nathaniel’s relationship with Cora faces all kinds of logistical complications – “Stay alive!” he shouts with furious rage on the eve of her capture by Magua, “I will find you!” – but the strength of that love, its uncomplicated purity, is never in doubt. Never again would Day-Lewis play a person so straightforwardly in love, so unconflicted internally, whatever the chaos around him.
This romantic clarity is of a piece with the larger sense of integration that marks Nathaniel’s character as a whole. He is a perfect Turnerian specimen, as at ease in a pick-up game of lacrosse as he is dining at the cabin of his friends, teasing Uncas about his prospects of finding a Delaware bride in Kentucky. At that point at the beginning of the film, he, Uncas and Chingachgook have just returned from fur hunting; in effect, the stretch of land between the Hudson and Ohio Rivers are Nathaniel’s stomping grounds. The three are headed back to Kentucky when they stop Magua from implementing his plans to seize the Munro sisters.
The fact that Nathaniel is not the entirely restless loner of Cooper’s saga, that there’s a place in his life for a woman who by the end of the film will literally stand by his side wherever he may go, is very much a part of the film’s larger design. The movie eschews the traditional funeral scenes of most Mohicans by having Chingachgook spread the ashes of Uncas over the western mountains amid a setting sun. He observes, as most versions of the story do, that he’s now the last of the Mohicans. But as sorry as we feel for Chingachgook, this version of the movie – as I will discuss, there are actually two 1992 versions, with subtly, but significantly, different endings – has a hopeful feel. That’s because we feel so strongly that the tragedy of Uncas notwithstanding, Nathaniel really is Chingachgook’s son (we moderns consider race and even parenthood a social construction, after all), and that in his presumed merger with Cora – a name takes on a new significance – the seed of a new national identity will be planted. As a hybrid, it will be resilient. And have plenty of room to grow. In this, the first film Day-Lewis made about American history, he embodies the frontier in its brightest phase and greatest height.
It will be all downhill from here.
Next: DDL and Gangs of New York