On a spring day last year, a few months before filming was to begin on The Last of the Mohicans, actor Daniel Day-Lewis and director Michael Mann crouched in a clearing in an Alabama forest. Gathering the wood they had cut with their own tomahawks, they began trying to light a fire the way an 18th- century woodsman would have, by striking together a flint and steel. Finally, one of the sparks caught in the dry tinder and the two stood and watched with satisfaction as the flicker grew into a modest blaze.
Though the time they spent developing their primitive skills proved an intense bonding experience, this was no men’s movement retreat. Day-Lewis had spent a month in Alabama’s Special Operations Center, a private antiterrorist training camp, whose staff has studied survival techniques past and present, and Mann frequently joined him on forays into the brush. And the weeks of observing the hunting and skinning of animals, shooting period rifles, and fighting teachers with tomahawks and knives were just a warm-up for another ordeal: the grueling 21 2-month production of Mohicans in the North Carolina wilderness.
Set during the 1757 war between France and Britain in the American colonies, Mohicans may be the most ambitious attempt to create a genuine epic in years, and it is the kind of gamble studios are reluctant to make these days. Day-Lewis stars as Nathaniel Poe, a white man nicknamed Hawkeye by the Mohican tribe that raised him, and Madeleine Stowe is his unlikely love interest, Cora Munro, the headstrong daughter of a British officer. Both actors remain unproven commercially, despite Stowe’s current hit thriller Unlawful Entry and Day-Lewis’ Oscar for the 1989 drama My Left Foot. And Mann, who is more famous for his television series Miami Vice and Crime Story than for his low-budget features Thief and Manhunter, is seen in the industry as a gifted but infuriatingly uncompromising director. Unleashing him on an elaborate period production shot almost entirely in Southern wilds with hundreds of extras must have given the studio pause.
”In terms of physical problems, this has all the precariousness of a Die Hard or a Lethal Weapon, except three times that, because it takes place a couple of hundred years ago,” says Joe Roth, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, which is releasing the film. But though the budget swelled to what he will only describe as ”not exceeding $40 million,” Roth was confident that Mann’s experience as a producer would help keep the production on track. As for Mann’s ability to direct such a huge project, Roth says, ”I just went on a leap of faith.”
Dances With Wolves it’s not. While Mohicans has the stunning look and romantic sweep of a traditional epic, its tone is darkly modern and violent. ”Dances With Wolves is an old-fashioned epic where you sit back and enjoy yourself,” says Roth. ”This one never gives you that luxury, it’s in your face all the time.” Indian activist Russell Means, who plays Hawkeye’s Mohican father, Chingachgook, also contrasts the movie with Dances, saying this script’s wide range of Indian characters appealed to him: ”Unlike in ‘Lawrence of the Plains,’ these Indians are not made out of papier-mache.”