Updated: 17 August, 1997
American TV writer and producer best known for "Starsky and Hutch" and "Miami Vice" (1984-89). Began directing feature films with the Thief (1981), an early depiction of Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector in Manhunter (1986) and his most ambitious work Last of the Mohicans (1992), dismissed by some critics as "Adirondack Vice".
Based upon James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Part of a series of 5 frontier novels known as The Leatherstocking Tales.
By the end of the film Chingachgook is the sole surviving member of the Mohican tribe. Hawkeye is his adopted son who was raised as a Mohican and thus he can carry on the Mohican traditions - but racially he is a European. The title thus suggests that the Indian policy of the British and Americans leads to racial extermination.
In an article in the journal of the British Film Institute, Sight and Sound, Martin Barker notes how often James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel has been adapted into plays, films, an opera, TV series, comic books, animated cartoons and radio series. He ascribes the malleability and appeal of the story to certain themes which can be used to support current ideological needs. An example he gives is its conversion from a literary classic into a children's story in order to support the ideal of British imperialism:
In about 1910, in both Britain and the US, a process began of converting a number of 'classics' into 'children's stories.' In Britain this was coupled with the rise of 'English' as a school discipline. Brian Doyle has argued in his English and Englishness (1990) that this burgeoned as a practice following the 1921 Newbolt Report (Newbolt being otherwise famous for his imperialist panegyric "Play up, play up, and play the game!"), which praised literature as a conveyor of a national imagination, a common sensibility uniting people across class. A number of publishers subsequently pushed out abridged 'classics', and later illustrated comic books, to help make such good works readily available to young minds... The Last of the Mohicans seems to have been ideally suited to this purpose. (pp. 26-7)
... We can even learn more from the ways motivation is altered and from the moments when privileged characters are allowed to give their views - or are not. Sometimes such changes are crude statements of ideology. The 1942 Classics Illustrated version, for example, produced just as the US was about to enter the Second World War and in the midst of a fever of anti-Japanese prejudice, simply reduced all Indians (including the Mohicans) to subhuman chatter, while the French were carefully 'excused' any role in the massacre. White unity in the face of yellow or red hordes clearly had priority. (p. 29)
... In Michael Mann's version (disparagingly called "Adirondack Vice" by some critics because of Mann's TV show "Miami Vice"), the English are unreliable, arrogant imperialists, whom ordinary Americans must defy in order to protect their homes. And whereas in the book Magua is motivated by revenge for having been punished like an animal by Captain Munro, for Mann his motivation is a desire to become a 'white capitalist', giving up the "ways of the Hurons" for trade, wealth and luxury.
This shift in perspective is linked in Mann's version with an overall tendancy to make Hawkeye the most Indian character of all... Mann has made a clever, beautiful, but in the end hollow film, celebrating cultural pluralism but depoliticising racial politics. (pp. 28-9)
John McWilliams, in "The Historical Contexts of The Last of the Mohicans," observes how powerfully Cooper's 1826 novel (and I would also say the films based upon the novel) captures the combination of guilt and self-justification which 19th and 20th century readers (and film-goers) feel towards the treatment of native American and other indigenous people:
... (the major) concerns of the novel - white land hunger justified as the progress of civilization, the breaking-up of red culture, and the inner price the white man pays for both - would become even more crucial in late nineteenth-century America than they had been in 1757. White settlement of the Trans-Mississippi west, the major Indian Wars, the development of the reservation system, the Dawes Severalty Act, and the steep decline in total Native American population, all these developments are latent in Cooper's novel, but lie ahead of it in historical time. The immediate and lasting popularity of the novel must therefore be explained in contextual as well as intrinsic terms. Cooper published The Last of the Mohicans exactly at the time (1826) when the inflammatory and controversial issue of Indian Removal became acute. For readers in later decades, the fates of Cooper's Indians became a vehicle for the guilt as well as the self-justification that accompanied the spirit and the annexations of American Manifest Destiny. (McManners, p. 417)
The conservative film critic Grenier dismisses Mann's movie as an unhistorical "fusion" of vastly different historical contexts and social attitudes into what he disparagingly calls "the Malibu Moment" or what one might also call "Hollywood History":
... what Michael Mann seems to be telling us portentously, with his compression of 1750s history, 1820s romance, 1930s Hollywood popular culture, and santimonious 1990s multiculturalism, is that he is able to fuse the conflicting social attitudes of many centuries - into a single moment. I submit that this is the Malibu Moment... (p. 52).
Critic Barker counts 10 films, 3 plays, 1 opera, 2 TV series (one "Hawkeye" running in Adelaide on late night TV 1996), 9 comic books, 2 animated cartoons, 2 British radio versions.
Martin Barker, "First and Last Mohicans," Sight and Sound , August 1993, vol. 3, no. 8, pp. 26-29.
James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, ed. John McWilliams (Oxford University Press, 1994).
John McWilliams, "The Historical Contexts of The Last of the Mohicans," in James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, ed. John McWilliams (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 399-425. Contains a good bibliography.
Richard Grenier, "America's Moral Hermaphrodite," Quadrant, May 1993, no. 296, vol. XXXVII, no. 5, pp. 46-52.
Terence Martin, "From Atrocity to Requiem: History in The Last of the Mohicans," pp. 47-65 and Robert Lawson-Peebles, "The Lesson of the Massacre at Fort William Henry," pp. 115-38 in New Essays on the Last of the Mohicans, ed. H. Daniel Peck (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
1. The historical basis for the events depicted in the novel:
2. Mann's attempt at historical authenticity:
3. The nickname "Hawkeye" also used by anti-authoritarian character (doctor from New England) in novel, film, and TV series "M*A*S*H (1970).
4. Why is this story so popular in America? in Britain?
5. What kind of hero is Hawkeye? what virtues does he embody? the "Indianness" of Hawkeye.
6. The themes of civilised old Europe in conlfict with North American "savages"; the miscegenation of races (Indian with white - Uncas and Cora (mixed white and negro)); the extinction of the Indian tribes as a result of European expansion; the uneasy position of the individualistic, anti-authoritarian frontiersman Hawkeye caught between 2 contending civilisations; the idea of "good Indians" (Mohicans) vs "bad Indians" (Hurons)
7. The laws of war (see Lawson-Peebles on the influence of Montesquieu, Vattel and Goldsmith on Cooper, p. 126): the French willingness to agree to an honourable surrender with generous terms to the defeated English at Fort William Henry; the clash between 2 different notions of laws of war (Indian and European)
8. The reasons for Magua's hatred of the English (a vicious flogging by Munro for being drunk) and the justice of his revenge-seeking, i.e. to take Munro's daughter Cora as a wife
9. Mann chooses to follow the plot of the 1936 movie (with all its changes) rather than base the film more closely on the original novel. Why are these changes made? what "ideological purpose" (Barker, p. 29) do they serve?
10. The image of the British officers (especially Colonel Munro) as unreliable and arrogant imperialists whose attitudes and behaviour justify the future War of Independence
11. The turning point of the novel: the massacre of the retreating English from Fort William Henry by the Hurons led by Magua; the atrocities committed (scalping, killing of 250 men, women and children - estimates of dead vary 69-1,200))
12. The revival in the 1990s of interest in films about the contact between Europeans and Native Americans: Bruce Beresford's Black Robe (1991) about a 17thC Jesuit priest who goes to Quebec to civilse the Natives; Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990) about a Civil War soldier who deserts to join the Sioux Indians; the made for cable-TV movie Roger Young's Geronimo (1993) about the resistance of the Chiricahua Apaches led by Geronimo to the US Cavalry: and Walter Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend (1993).
13. The savage nature of the war between the French and the British (with their respective Indians allies) for control of North America. The war on the frontier required guerrilla tactics and the bending or suspension of traditional laws of war more suitable to European styles of warfare, or adoption of Indian laws of war. Adoption of Indian tactics by both sides: ambushes, scalping, Huron drinking of blood of victims, defiling bodies of dead women and children. Hawkeye gets caught up in cycle of violence and is "brutalized" by experieince - he is changed from scout to warrior. Compare savagery of guerrilla war in Vietnam.
14. Chief of the Hurons, Sachem, poses the dilemma faced by the UIndian
tribes in the face of irresistable European expansion into their continent.