Daniel Day-Lewis announced recently his retirement from acting. That’s unfortunate news for movie fans. I won’t try to characterize him as an actor, other than to acknowledge him as one of the greats, having won three Oscars amid a ridiculously long list of awards. Wikipedia has a good entry on his person.
At the risk of appearing hopelessly middle-brow I confess that I remember him most prominently in his role as Hawkeye in Michael Mann’s 1992 remake of The Last of the Mohicans. I enjoy the film’s warmth and its verisimilitude in scenes such as the besieging of Fort William Henry and the attack on the fort’s occupants on their way out. And I appreciate the film’s ability to convey the naked brutality of the time and place without bathing us in graphic depiction.
The film’s creators changed the original story, but I don’t begrudge it them. Audience taste and sensitivities change. In the film, Uncas and Hawkeye are brother-like friends, with Chingachgook as father and father-figure, while in the original it was Hawkeye and Chingachgook who were the brother-like friends, with Chingachgook’s son Uncas as the young one. The film wanted to showcase a romantic relationship between Hawkeye and Cora Munro, something that had no place in the original. And there are other changes, insertions, and omissions that allow the storytellers to retain the skeleton of the original work while adding layers of detail that project our own story onto the original frame.
The novel, first published in 1826, used the setting of the deep forest and the characters of one European and two Indians to explore the question of human nature and its need for “civilization” as the basis for morality and meaningful life – an unsurprising question given a young republic only recently born of revolution and confronted with a vast natural world inhabited by peoples living in much closer accord with that environment. James Fenimore Cooper’s depiction of Native American characters as honorable and intelligent was groundbreaking in its day and not universally applauded.
But I doubt that Cooper’s original theme would have much purchase on the modern mind. Instead, the 1992 film emphasizes freedom and its importance even in the face of risk, a topic we can relate to. In one memorable scene from the film, Hawkeye rebuts a British army officer recruiting local militia. Hawkeye asks why people should join the fight. The officer replies that France is the enemy. Hawkeye objects, saying, “France is your enemy”, as if this British officer were some kind of foreigner himself and the conflict between Britain and France of no import to local people, an attitude that I imagine would seem very strange to any frontier resident of the time, given the destruction of Saratoga and general frontier mayhem of King George’s War just 12 years prior. No, for people living north of Albany in 1757 France very much was the enemy.
I also once watched a BBC version of the story, made for television in 1971. Among other liberties taken with the story was an eye-opening scene in which Cora and Alice Munro, recently arrived at the fort, offer their help caring for the wounded. The surgeon, an officer, absolutely refuses to permit it. His class consciousness forbids the presence of ladies in such a squalid environment and un-ladylike undertaking. Cooper’s original tale says little about the actual siege of the fort and makes no mention of anything like this. The BBC folks, in their sense of class, inferred such a scene (which I think credible and enlightening), while the American film took it as a matter of course that Cora and Alice would pitch in and be welcomed. In this we see that the verisimilitude of the film’s battle scenes does not extend to portrayal of social norms of the day.
In fact, aside from a few moments of visible contempt on the part of British officers for “colonials”, class plays no role in the modern film. Cooper’s novel, on the other hand, deals not so much with class as with the question of blood and birth. For Cooper’s Cora was the product of her father’s first marriage to a woman of the West Indies with an African forebear in her family tree. This mixing of the races is indicated in Cora’s dark hair and generally lustier character and, in keeping with the conventions of the day, is what dooms her. But again it’s unlikely that the radar of a modern audience would pick up on such a dynamic or find it a compelling backdrop, so Cora survives in the film for the sake of happy-end romance with Hawkeye, and Uncas instead wends his affections towards Alice, who suffers the fate of Cora in the novel, though honorably by choosing death, rather than callously at the hand of one of Magua’s compatriots.
History and historical fiction present an opportunity to place ourselves in the shoes of others and imagine our reactions to their challenges so that we might learn about ourselves in a kind of thought experiment and not have to always rely on blundering through present reality to learn those same lessons. But we’re not the same people that they were. While we share a basic humanity our sensibilities and frames of reference are quite different, and we shouldn’t mistake recreated trappings of objects and events for the lived reality of those depicted. For that we’d have to work harder, be more patient, take seriously their cares and prejudices, and not insist that they share our values or entertain us. Not exactly a Hollywood recipe.