After the debacle of Gladiator’s initial Blu-ray release, it seems that some folks are keen to have Mann’s The Last Of The Mohicans revisited for a new remaster, as well.
My copy turned up after I’d already read reams of scorn and vitriol regarding the “darkening” of this transfer and the re-timed colour and, to be honest, looking at some of those screengrab comparisons I, too, felt that I was in for a transfer that was possibly quite shockingly botched. The truth, as ever, lies with the real article when seen in full motion. And, thankfully, Mohicans doesn’t look that bad at all. In fact, taken as a whole, the transfer is really stunning and nicely detailed, very film-like … but there are still some major considerations that have be addressed regarding this image and the changes that many perceive that it has undergone.
Now, although I’ve not seen any hard and fast information regarding it, I’m of the understanding that Michael Mann has authorised this transfer and overseen the results, which means that this is how he wants the film to look. Being as he has gone back in to it and slightly altered his own previous director’s cut, plus supplied a brand new commentary and participated in a new retrospective making-of, this seems like an accurate assumption. Now, much is made of the film’s realism as far as lighting goes. With only source light, or Spinotti’s best approximation of it, the aesthetic is deemed to be subdued, overcast, shadowy and dark. And this transfer is very dark. I actually agree with this choice as a creative element, but this certainly seems darker than it has looked before – even in the cinema, which I naturally cannot remember exactly how it looked now, but find it hard to believe that the big screen would be swathed in as much impenetrable shadow as this image frequently can be. The night-time scenes are cloaked in blackness, though it is not always inky black. There can be a grey cast to some scenes that softens and dilutes the blackness yet still refuses to divulge much detail therein. The scene when our heroes lie in-hiding within the boundaries of a burial ground from an approaching war-party looks horrible, quite frankly. As do elements and shots during the pivotal set-piece behind the waterfall. The illumination in this latter sequence when Magua and his men arrive to capture the fugitives does look wonderful, I should add – very natural and convincing – and this is indicative of the sparse and authentically meagre source lighting throughout, but the shadows don’t look authentically deep and black to me here and in the previous mentioned sequence, they look somewhat murky and ill-defined. Whether this is intentional or not and, of course, whether we are losing any detail within this image or not because of it, becomes a bit of moot point when Mann, himself, has approved the look of it. But you cannot help but feel that you are indeed missing out on something.
Other moments that become quite worryingly dark are plentiful – Hawkeye and Uncas sniping the enemy from the fort’s ramparts, for instance – but when you happen to glance back at the R1 Director's Expanded Edition, you will surely find that the image, even here, is emphatically dark in exactly the same places. Instances such as Magua stepping out from the shadows for his ominous introduction to Heywood actually seem to be better off with the darker aspect, both more natural, given the environment, and more atmospheric. Personally, I prefer this darker-seeming transfer, on the whole.
Colours are lavish without being overstated. The variance in greens for the forests and the meadows is vivid without being boosted at all. I mean, the foliage looks real and not brightened to make it look any prettier. The same goes for the occasional blue skies and the rivers and lakes. Earthy textures abound for the natives and for Hawkeye, but the French and English uniforms are beautifully rendered with strong colours. Reds are deep and lush, although blood is dark and grim. Skin tones are very accurate, although it could be argued that some of the softer shots seems to possess a slightly bland appearance. The gold braid seen on the tunics of Montcalm and Munro is fantastic, although having listened to Mann’s commentary, you can see the fake shadows that have been painted into the design to give them depth and a raised quality. Flags, fires and explosions all flare quite nicely too. The long shots of red-coated soldiers seen amid the forestry looks stunning. That final scene on the cliff-top does seem as though it has been re-timed to look darker but, once again, I wasn't troubled by this at all. It still looks natural to me for the apparent time of day and the length of shadows being cast. Contrast during the daylight scenes, or those overtly lit by lanterns or fires, is terrific. There is a faithfulness to nature that is starkly apparent throughout, from the overcast lighting to the swarthy shadows that prevail in the woods and I think that Mann and Spinotti have to be applauded for making such an attempt to capture the natural world and totally eschewing the “given” and expected standards of the medium.
Grain is retained but it is thin and unintrusive, very finely resolved. The image is a little bit softer than many hi-def presentations, but this also reveals a picture that has been blissfully unmolested by DNR or edge enhancement. I spotted no aliasing or banding either. Detail is actually wonderful, although the image will not specifically open itself up to scrutiny in the way that many newer titles do. Facial detail can be lacking, but clothing, foliage and landscapes – both near and far – are immensely satisfying. Three-dimensionality is well catered-for too. Scenes of large-scale battles offer us a great sense of depth and visual spatiality with proud delineation in for-and middle-ground and surprisingly bold rendering of objects and characters bustling about in the background.
As far as I am concerned, you do not need to be messing about with the brightness or the contrast with this transfer. The film looks fantastic and, in something of a Hollywood rarity, actually appears to be as realistically lit as possible – which can only enhance the mood of the story being told.
If Michael Mann wants his film to accurately represent the wilderness of 1757 visually, then he wants it to sound like it too. And what this means is that, like Public Enemies, there is quite a disparage between the verbals and the violence. With his canvas presented against a wide and expansive environment, director and sound engineers have strived to create the sense of depth and distance, of echo and of reverberation that attempts to mimic such acoustics. All of which, folks, means that you may well find yourself fumbling about for the volume control as the movie moves from battles to hushed exchanges and back to battles again. Now I didn’t have a problem with this at all, and the attention to dynamic detail and immersive authenticity is, I feel, palpable and only adds to the atmosphere of the story.
Natural ambience may not be relied upon all the way through, but when we have otherwise quiet moments, we certainly hear birdsong, animal cries, crunching twigs, the surge of fast-moving water and the trickle of smaller streams, and the sound of footfalls in the undergrowth. Dialogue is not swamped, drowned or muffled at all. But it does not come across with the kind of clarity and vividness that you may be accustomed to with lossless mixes. Mann doesn’t want it too. If people are muttering in the trees, or whispering in the undergrowth, he doesn’t want their voices to come over as though the rest of the world has suddenly stopped for the duration of their speech. Likewise, if they are screaming to be heard over the roaring of a waterfall very close-by, that waterfall is still going to be the dominant component on the audio track, regardless of how important the words might be. Or in the thick of battle, with muskets cracking and the cacophony of violence all around – the music is certainly riding forcibly over the top of it all, I know but when Hawkeye’s cry of “Cora!!!” comes as he charges to her rescue it is totally silent and lost amid the squall. At the flicks all that long ago, I remember this element very implicitly – it stuck in my mind simply because I found it slightly irritating. Every version of the film has retained this and now, if anything, the dialled-down dialogue makes more sense in the scheme of things. And it is worth pointing out that there isn’t a time when you can’t hear and understand anything anyway.
But when it comes to the more dramatic elements of the mix, Last Of The Mohicans definitely impresses. It may catch you slightly unawares after a quiet period, but when the fighting commences, it can be very resounding and emphatic. During the siege of Fort William Henry we have some truly gut-punching canon blasts as ramparts are ripped asunder and soldiers tumble about. The long tracking artillery bombardment offers plenty of sub-action, and we get to easily discern debris, shrapnel and wreckage spinning through the air and crashing to the ground. The massacre scene boasts fabulously well-realised and superbly positioned musket and rifle fire from both front and left, and with terrific sense of depth further back into the image. As the battle suddenly gains wind and more shots are fired, we get the impression of the gunfire and war-whoops coming towards us and getting thicker all the time. After the wary lull before the fight, this is quite a great effect. The sound of tomahawks slicing or thudding into people is acute. We can hear the gristle being torn in a victim’s chest as Magua carves out his heart, and the gruesome sound of a throat being sliced open later on. Metallic flashes abound – listen to the awesome and extremely painful-sounding impacts of Hawkeye’s tomahawk doing some shuddersome damage to a Huron warrior. The echo of some of the scout’s rifle-shots is wowing, the effect rippling across the sound-field with trembling shock-waves. Surround use is actually very well utilised without ever once going overboard. It follows the on-screen action without embellishing anything to silly proportions and, if anything, I found myself feeling a little surprised at the realistic restraint the track showed with regards to full-on wraparound supersonics. It is also very pleasing to note that some of the far more subtle sounds still find a way to shine through – such as the gorgeous little “nokk!” noise that we hear when Hawkeye places the power-horn in his mouth as he reloads on-the-fly during that incredible finale. Chingachcook’s bone-breaking axe impacts have a sharp and somehow “organic” weight to them too – the blow that shatters an arm is especially wince-inducing … we can actually hear something vibrate within the thud.
And then there’s the music. Sweeping, lyrical, hypnotic and massively powerful, this is a marvellous showcase for one of the most beloved action scores of modern cinema, the DTS track doing all the composers and contributors proud with a forceful and inspiring presentation. There are those who will say that the score is too strong for the visuals and the overall mix – in fact I know people who have complained about this already – but I can only say that the mix sounds tremendous with regards to how those immortal themes smother, embolden and rouse the narrative. Variance in the orchestration is subtle but effectively conveyed. The range is wide and rewarding with keen attention to instrumentation making this a tour de force for score-lovers, with phenomenal cymbal clashes, deep percussion, rolling brass surges and that majestic fiddle-playing.
Overall, I am very pleased with this audio presentation. Much aggression is provided when necessary, the dialogue sounds genuinely placed within the environment and the sudden lunge in bombast when the action kicks-in only adds to the wild, heart-stopping impetus of each successive scenario. Well played. This sounds terrific.
Well, there isn’t much on offer … even after all these years, but what there is on this release is good, worthwhile material.
Michael Mann supplies a brand new commentary track that is, to be honest, more of a history lesson than anything else. He basically lectures us on the history of the Indians and the American Colonies, the Anglo-French War, and the culture of the various tribes. Along the way, we learn much that helped to make the film as authentic as possible, from the locations, the fighting styles, the predominant use of the tomahawk by everybody, the incredible lack of CG or any digital effects whatsoever, and the attention to detail even down to the gold braid on the jackets of Montcalm and Munro and the etiquette of French bowing. There are a couple of brief lulls, but Mann acquits himself admirably for the most part. He talks about the score, and how it was his wife who first heard The Gael and brought it to his attention, and how he had Trevor Jones take out the harmony and use it as the main cyclic rhythm for two of the film’s most memorable scenes. We hear bits and bobs about the casting and Mann occasionally becomes scene-specific to discuss the attitudes and narrative twists that we see taking place. There is a little bit of explanation as the lighting of the film, the use of source illumination and density of the shadows, but Mann doesn’t actually mention any tinkering about that he has done with this remastering – which is a touch irritating. But, on the whole, if you don’t mind being educated for long stretches, this is a fine commentary. What would have been greater still, of course, would have been an alternate track with Day-Lewis, Stowe and Studi. Now just imagine that.
What we get next is a terrific three-part retrospective making-of documentary that goes quite extensively behind the scenes of the film. With a handy Paly All option, the feature runs to over forty minutes, and it is very entertaining and enjoyable. Naturally we see Day-Lewis undergoing his outdoors survival training – working with modern-day weapons before regressing back into muzzle-loaders, tomahawks and knives. This is great to watch, of course. We see Dale Dye drilling the English and French soldiers … and it is heart-lifting to see the esteemed US Marine wearing the Green Beret of our own Royal Marines! (He admires our boys greatly and even put himself through their selection course.) The costumes are addressed, as it the comprehensive building of Fort William Henry and the use of massive canons. Mann discusses the paintings that inspired him and we hear from a Native American historian about the accuracy of the film's depiction of the era. Day-Lewis, Stowe, Mann, casting director Bonnie Timmerman, composer Trevor Jones and even the great Wes Studi get to share their memories with us about the production. There's some pretension about “acting style” (from and about Day-Lewis, of course), but this is a smart, informative and long-overdue account about the making of the classic film.
Pulse-pounding, staggeringly visceral and unashamedly heroic, Michael Mann's interpretation of The Last Of The Mohicans is, to my my mind, the greatest action film of the nineties. All these years later, it still packs a punch, stirs the emotions and truly inspires. Daniel Day-Lewis becomes Hawkeye right before you, imbuing his stoic woodsman with instinctual fury, a profound moral sense and the sort of bygone nobility that every single one of us wishes we had somewhere in our genetic code. The Native American cast are exemplary, with Wes Studi and Russell Means absolutely epitomising the spiritual resilience and physical bravery that their people must have experienced in the face of such a devastating and irreversible culture-clash. And, man, that music!
As a slice of pure escapism, the film effortlessly succeeds, but the real power of Mann's adventure lies in its sense of authentic heroism and historical evocation. It is able to combine myth with reality and to educate without ever once being preachy or condescending to the audience. And, above all else, it moves just as much as it rouses. Magua and his grim vendetta may still deliver a few bad dreams, but the delight is in the sheer complexity of his character and the fact that there is a certain ghastly charisma that simmers its way through that implacable exterior. The damaging yet courageous dynamic of the collision of all these colourful characters provides an endlessly engrossing and visually captivating spectacle that has been brought to Blu-ray with a transfer that may trouble some viewers, but remains one of the most faithful-looking to have made the leap to hi-definition. Yes, it is dark … but it was always meant to be. And Fox's handling of the film's classic soundtrack may also consternate – yet, once again, this is part and parcel of an experience that has been meticulously crafted to evoke the environment in which the tale takes place and to come across as realistically and as naturally as can be.
And even if this cut of the film still leaves a little bit to be desired, this is the disc of The Last Of The Mohicans that I recommend you reach for when you pluck up the courage to go running through the wilds alongside Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas.
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