Film Stuff

Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Every so often, I’m jolted out of my sense of complacency about films. I’d seen Last of the Mohicans before; of course I had. I can even tell you approximately when: it was a New Year’s Eve when I was about 20. It was a quiet, civilised night in with friends Sandra & Jo and we were working our way through a double or triple bill of films. I drove back home and arrived, stone cold sober at around 3am, to a chorus of drunken cheers from a parental party still in full swing. I have never felt more like Saffy before or since.

Anyway, the digression just serves to illustrate that I only got around to seeing the film approximately seven years after its first release, on a small screen, and it wasn’t the most memorable part of the night (that honour was taken by the image of my dad being hoisted up the stairs by his trousers by his elderly aunt at 5am, who clearly thought he’d had quite enough to drink, thank you very much). I remembered a few salient points – the waterfall, the shock fate of a couple of characters, and ‘I will find you!’, all combining into a sense of melodramatic excess. Frankly, I wasn’t too fussed.*

Fast forward to last weekend, and I’d spotted the film was being shown at The Electric as part of their Cinematic Time Machine series. Knowing Bob was not averse to the odd Western, I suggested we give it a go. Will McKeown from the University of Birmingham’s B-Film research centre gave a very interesting and informative introduction to the film, which provided some background context and set the stage effectively.

I tell you, I was almost crying by the time the first few bars kicked in. And no, before you ask, I’m not speaking as a newly discovered Daniel Day-Lewis fangirl (bit late now, seeing as he’s just retired). But the epic music, the vast landscapes, and the dramatic themes set against the backdrop of war seemed to strike a chord. And a melody. Did I mention the music?

Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his adopted father Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) exist on the fringes of the French and Indian Wars in 1757. They live, hunt, and survive alongside the colonial settlers, subject to no-one but themselves. Happening upon a Huron ambush led by the uncompromising Magua (Wes Studi), they rescue two daughters of a British colonel stationed at Fort William Henry. Offering to escort them to the safety of the Fort, they arrive to find the place under heavy siege by the French. Smuggling their charges through the lines under the cover of darkness, their mission seems to be complete. Until, that is, Hawkeye takes a shine to the elder daughter and decides to stay on for a bit to get to know her while the fort is pummelled into submission. Finally surrendering to the French, the Colonel and his men are allowed to depart with full honours, only to march straight into the path of the waiting Magua and his war party. Saving the day again with some nifty moves (albeit not quite preventing a massacre), Hawkeye and co. escape to the afore-mentioned waterfall with the two daughters, an English officer, and a couple of anonymous redshirts who you just know are not long for this world. After a few more twists and turns, and an awful lot of running, the denouement falls on a clifftop skirmish; a fight to the death to enact justice, revenge, and a poignant lament for a dying way of life.

Yes, it’s corny. But my god, does it work. The tone, while reverential, never succumbs to parodic pretension. The visuals – as noted in the introductory talk – are stunning, and not just the landscapes. Many scenes are seemingly composed to resemble historical paintings of the period (thanks to Bob for that observation). Such attention to detail exemplifies the director’s focus on historical authenticity, from training the extras in contemporaneous military manoeuvres, to building the entire set of Fort William Henry from scratch using local materials.

What is especially interesting is that this dedication to historical veracity is favoured above a faithful rendering of the original plot. Viewed as an adaptation, the film clearly takes liberties with the source material; several characters who survive to the end of the novel do not share the same fortune here. Identities are switched around, ages are altered, and a racial undercurrent is not addressed apart from a brief mention in passing. But audiences are not engaging with the story as an exercise in comparison. As John le Carre says in an interview as part of the DVD extras on the 2011 release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: “this is the film of the film, not the film of the book.” It has to be seen on its own terms. Narrative fidelity – to what has been described as a rather simplistic depiction of cultural stereotypes – has been eschewed in favour of historical authenticity, in what Kamilla Elliott would identify as the ‘trumping’ model of adaptation. In this case, the changes align with the director’s interpretation of historical events to form a narrative cohesion that emphasises the central theme of survival and offers a prescient nod to the autonomy of rule.

The overall result successfully combines the genres of literary adaptation, war, frontier western, and historical romance, which is no easy task. The central relationships are well-characterised and (most importantly) credible, which go a long way to humanising the conflict and its surrounding politics. A film well-deserving of another outing on the big screen.

Some final thoughts:

  • It struck me that Peter Jackson must have taken some inspiration from this film for Lord of the Rings, not least in the visual characterisation of Aragorn and the chasing of the Uruk-Hai at the beginning of The Two Towers. You could push it even further and substitute the three characters easily enough: Hawkeye – Aragorn, Chingachgook – Gimli, Uncas – Legolas. Someone more technically-minded than me could produce a great mash-up of the two, swapping over the respective soundtracks
  • Like this kind of thing (full respect at 2.05 – that’s got to be tough on the thighs)

Footnote

*A few years ago, we had also seen the 1970s BBC TV adaptation, which was memorable mainly for Allo Allo’s Hilary Minster popping up at regular intervals in roles ranging from a British sergeant, Huron warrior, French infantryman and Delaware scout. The budget evidently didn’t stretch to covering the extras.

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Film Stuff

Day 22: Catch-22 (1970)

Released at the same time as M*A*S*H in 1970, Catch-22 suffered in comparison with Robert Altman’s radical war satire, which heralded a new and uncompromising method of film-making. According to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), even the director, Mike Nichols admitted as such: “We were waylaid by M*A*S*H, which was much fresher and more alive, improvisational, and funnier than Catch-22…It just cut us off at the knees”. Following trumping his rival at the box office, Robert Altman put up a sign in his office saying: “Caught-22”.

I’m not going to argue with the box office (and I haven’t seen M*A*S*H, so I can’t comment), but Catch-22 doesn’t have the hallmarks of a flop. It’s a sharp, smart, jet black comedy pillorying the absurdity of war. The central conundrum of Catch-22 roughly equates to the following:

if you’re mad, you’re automatically grounded, but in order to be certified mad, you have to request to be grounded. If you request to be grounded, you’re obviously not mad because no one in their right minds would want to be flying.

This gives the generals free reign to keep upping the number of missions, going well beyond anyone’s levels of tolerance, and, ultimately, sanity. The fissures are there from the outset, from Alan Arkin’s cynical Bombadier, Yossarian, to Jon Voight’s entrepreneurial mess officer and Bob Balaban’s serial plane crasher. Major Danby reads out mission briefings like it’s a weather forecast, and the doctor comes to terms with his own mortality as he’s wiped from the records after being reported killed. It’s every man for himself and no one has a clue what the hell’s going on. The bureaucratical fatcats, led by Martin Balsam and Orson Welles, respond to the crises by promoting people because of their name (Captain Major henceforth known as Major Major), and dispensing medals to cover up a monumental cock-up over Italy.

Amongst all this insanity, there’s a recurring dream-like sequence of the Bombardier going to the aid of a rear plane-gunner who’s so new he doesn’t even know his name. It’s a rare quiet period amidst the chaos, the scene gradually extending each time we see it, until the final, horrific, revelation. By this time, it’s all gone to pot. The small group of friends has been fractured beyond repair, with the one ray of hope lying with the crazy Balaban, whose propensity at ditching his plane in the ocean hides a cunning and thoroughly rational plan.

I love the Theatre of the Absurd and I reckon Catch-22 is the closest you’ll get to it in film terms. The characters are cogs in the machine, representations and exaggerations of human traits, rather than rounded characters in their own right. Jon Voight’s Milo is the epitome of the cash-grabbing capitalist whose economic structure takes precedence over the lives of the men he’s supposed to be supporting. It’s a world view that’s as bleak as 1984but retains a small spark  of individuality and hope as Yossarian strikes out for freedom. It’s cleverly written, very funny, and forty years on, deserves to be appreciated as a film in its own right.

Incidentally, does anyone else get confused between Martin Balsam and Ernest Borgnine? No? Just me then.