The setting and time period of Mann’s adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans is…jarring, to say the least. Yet even during the opening credit sequence the film sets up a theme common to Mann’s work: respect of your prey. As the Mohicans (including Daniel Day-Lewis’ lead character of Nathaniel Hawkeye, an adopted white warrior) hunt and kill a deer, they offer their appreciation of the beast’s sacrifice for their nourishment. This respect prefigures the kind of respect that Pacino has for De Niro in Heat (1995) as well as the more complicated respect that Max has for Vincent in Collateral (2004), to say nothing of recalling the respect that Will Graham shows for Hannibal Lecter (and to an extent Dollarhyde) in Manhunter (1986).
Likewise, the film has some questioning of the nature of honor. Although Magua (Wes Studi), a Huron Indian, is trusted to escort Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) and her sister by her to their father at Fort Henry, he takes them into an ambush. They are saved by Hawkeye and his people, who are questioned at every turn by Cora’s escort Major Duncan (Steven Waddington). Nevertheless, it is Hawkeye who is trustworthy. This in and of itself is something of a contradiction because he doesn’t consider himself a servant to the British army. Yet he finds it in his heart to intervene against an ambush in which he has no stake. Further, he is willing to escort Duncan, Cora and her sister to Fort Henry, despite having no reason to. Whether he means to be or not, he seems to be more honorable than Colonel Munro’s own trusted Huron ally.
In Michael Mann’s world, characters are neither black nor white but are painted in shades of grey. They can be likable one minute and unlikable the next, all the while having their reasons for either trait.
Of course, Hawkeye’s devotion to the cause of protecting Cora is underlined by his eventual infatuation with her, just as Duncan’s sacrifice of his own life to save her underlines his infatuation with her. Ultimately, it is his love for Cora which tames him, to a certain extent – the rare case of a violent hero in Mann’s world surviving with domesticity intact.
Now to clarify something I spoke of in class. What bothers me about this film is not how Native Americans are depicted – stereotypically or otherwise. Rather, what bothered me is the notion of the “White Messiah” that has gone on in Hollywood for a long time. Hawkeye is a white character adopted by the Mohicans and raised by them. Although he is pretty fully assimilated into their culture, he is still white. It’s not really any better than Glory, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai or (more recently) The Help – telling a minority story through the eyes of a white man. Again, as I said in class, this is not a fault of Mann but a “fault” in the story of Fennimore Cooper.