After reading a recent review of Ron Howard's "The Missing" by Steve Sailer (Washington Times) I think I know why "Last of the Mohicans" was overlooked. No matter how good this film was, it bucked the dominant trend in pop-culture perceptions of Native Americans at the time - a trend, according to Sailer, that might be reversing. Here's a historical breakdown of trends in similar films:
1. 1950-1970 - Native Americans are one-dimensional, easily killed, comic-book villians. No religious elements appear. There are only a few exceptions to this rule (e.g. John Ford's "The Searchers").
2. 1970s - Native American violence becomes brutal and real - but we also get rising sensitivity to Native Anericans without much sappy-ness. To quote Sailer:
"'The Missing' resembles 'Ulzana's Raid,' the 1972 Burt Lancaster film that was one of several brutal but realistic films (such as 1970's 'A Man Called Horse') made during a brief period of balance in the depiction of Native Americans, falling between the earlier era's anti-Indian prejudice and the present day's happy-clappy New Age nonsense."
In other words, if "Last of the Mohicans" had been released in 1970 it might have been hailed as "progressive."
3. 1980s and 1990s - Religious/spiritual interpretations of Native Americans become dominant but are just as comic-book as the old 1950s violence. Native Americans are cute New Age "Dances With Wolves" icons that sit around and act wise. "Native American" becames an always-good point of reference in the Culture Wars. Classic example from South Park: an old hippie screams in front of a new Starbuck's
"...how many Native Americans did you slaughter to make that coffee shop?"
Michael Mann's "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992) clearly ran counter to the 1990s trend - it was trashed by critics at the time but I've always felt it was a much better film than it is given credit for, even a classic. But it bucks the New Age image of Native Americans so popular in 1992. For example, the old chief at the end uses his spiritual authority to make a brutal, violent decision for death so that justice is served. The Native American father Chingagchook kills the revenge and power-mad Magua without pity. And as for Magua's own behavior...nobody on either side is asking "...can't we all just get along?"
In other words, Mann picked the exact wrong time to make this film. In the 1970s it might have been properly recognized, but by 1992 it was out of step with the touchy-feely image of Native Americans. Coupled with its obvious melodrama and action-film hype, the film became too much of a "guilty pleasure" to win praise (but don't let that stop you now).
Movies are changing again, and that might be a good reason to go out and rent "Last of the Mohicans." According to Sailer, "the dark side of Native American spiritualism" is now being seen in "Missing". Like "Mohicans", Howard's new film loses the New Age stuff for a dreamlike action/horror state. The scenes below have their obvious parallels in "Mohicans":
Blanchett finds her boyfriend's charred corpse strung up over a campfire where the Indians slowly roasted him to death. Later, when a photographer snaps the Apache leader's picture, the shaman gets his soul back by tearing out the man's heart.
The other problem with "Mohicans" was that it is too "manly." There's a very strong female lead, but the men are also real, lusty, nasty men. By including this brand of passion, "Mohicans" conflicted directly with the "girl power" pop culture trend of the mid-1990s. Admitting you liked the film made you anti-woman as well as anti Native American.
In this light, consider Sailer's comments on "Missing" - they apply equally to "Mohicans:"
"Still, I have to admire Howard for ignoring the bogus and condescending fantasies about American Indian culture rampant in our society today. Native Americans have suffered enough without having the memory of their warriors emasculated by self-absorbed eco-feminists into sappy symbols. Geronimo was a cruel man, but he was every inch a man."
We may be on the edge of a revival of films which are capable of mixing Native Americans, violence, and romance in a good way. If so, the underappreciated "Last of the Mohicans" is a place to start.