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"Mohicans' lasts

Published Oct. 12, 2005


By James Fenimore Cooper

Charles Scribner's Sons, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, $24.95; paperback movie tie-in, Pocket Books, $4.99

Reviewed by D. T. Max

Every age remakes the classics for itself, and America generally does this through its movies _ although lately such literary howlers as Scarlett and H: The Story of Heathcliff's Journey Back to Wuthering Heights have staked their own foul-tasting claim.

Only in America could a producer/screenwriter/director best known for creating Miami Vice have the power or the desire to get a studio to greenlight a remake of a 150-year-old novel, James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. (There was also a 1936 version of Mohicans in which Randolph Scott played Hawkeye). The chairman of the studio, before committing what would ultimately be almost $40-million dollars, was reported to have said all he knew about the book was that it was a classic.

Perhaps he was lucky. Two hours of Daniel Day-Lewis, shirt open to the chest, hair shining in the pre-revolutionary sun, is good fun. Meanwhile the British drop likes flies because they simply can't understand you don't win fighting standing up in bright red coats while your enemy crouches in camouflage behind a log. Sound familiar? Both novel and movie, meant to suggest the coming rout of the demoralized British in the Revolutionary War, also feel like companion pieces to Platoon.

If Mann's movie is a bright California salad of sound and action _ here a tomahawking Indian, there a woman in peril _ Cooper's novel (for a reader accustomed to anything from Raymond Carver to James Michener) is like one of those old eight course meals with place cards, sorbet as a palate cleanser, six different wines and finger bowls.

Meet Hawkeye: "The frame of the white man, judging by such parts as were not concealed by his clothes, was like that of one who had known hardships and exertion from his earliest youth. His person, though muscular, was rather attenuated than full, but every nerve and muscle appeared strung and indurated by unremitted exposure and toil . . ."

One of the two daughters of a British officer he conveys through hostile territory, by contrast, has a "dazzling complexion, fair golden hair and bright blue eyes . . . caught, as she artlessly suffered the morning air to blow aside the green veil which descended low from her beaver. The flush which still lingered above the pines in the western sky was not more bright nor delicate than the bloom on her cheek. . . ."

You get the idea.

Overblown though his prose is, Cooper has taken it on the chin for a century from critics but refuses to go down, even when his soulmate Sir Walter Scott, he of Scottish maidens and Ivanhoe, disappeared from reading lists.

D. H. Lawrence, a fan, pointed out Cooper wrote most of his Deerstalker novels, of which Mohicans is one, comfortably seated in Europe. Twain considered Cooper's fiction almost too silly to speak of.

But there is _ as movie creator Michael Mann saw _ once you strip away the clotted cream of language, something absolutely current in this novel. Flanked by his friend Chingachgook, Hawkeye is a resourceful Westerner "gone native," who protects the undefended _ though hardly unblemished _ in a murky moral landscape because he chooses to. This novel will strike you as wrong in so much detail, but it is still a very different book than you assumed; worth reading _ if only you had the time.


T. Max is the publishing columnist for Variety.