The Last of the Mohicans
During my studies in cinema, I must admit that despite all the knowledge I learned, I never managed to get interested in American historical epic motion pictures, and they still continue to bother me today. However, a blog dedicated to Eric Schweig cannot avoid posting about The Last of the Mohicans, and about its crucial impact on Eric Schweig’s career. The role of Uncas, although secondary and virtually silent, has propelled him to stardom.
The Last of the Mohicans is about three trappers protecting a British Colonel’s daughters in the midst of the French and Indian War. As the English and French soldiers battle for control of the North American colonies in the 18th century, the settlers and native Americans are forced to take sides. Cora and her sister Alice unwittingly walk into trouble but are saved by Hawkeye, an orphaned settler adopted by the last of the Mohicans.
I am still deeply disturbed by the Hollywood “Tonto”, “Indian Blood-Thirsty” and “Noble Savage” stereotypes carried by this movie from the 1990s, but for the purposes of this post, I played my old VHS cassette of The Last of the Mohicans (often using the fast forward button though…), in order to go beyond what everyone already knows: Eric Schweig was of magnetic beauty and presence in this film.
We all know what beauty is, but how do we define an actor’s “presence”? This rare quality often escapes theory and definitions. It is often confused with energy, photogenic, corporeal theatrical power or charisma. In the case of Eric Schweig in The Last of the Mohicans, the severity of his expression and the weight of his silence create a striking contrast with the palpable unrest and nervousness expressed by other main characters in the movie. Uncas stands out like if he was “the eye in the middle of the storm”, a kind of axis at the center of a vast epic drama vortex. Therefore, it was necessary that this axis (Uncas) looked particularly strong, quiet and calm, otherwise the emotional energy of this large-scale movie would have exploded in all directions. The casting department has done a good job here, Eric Schweig had the perfect physical characteristics to play this kind of axis.
Let me explain. The film seems to be conceived as a sphere containing a violent swirling storm. The envelope (or periphery) of the sphere is yet perfectly calm, grand and majestic, to create the necessary sublimation of the violent scenes that take place inside. This calm envelope is in fact the natural landscape of the film, shot beautifully by the director of photography Dante Spinotti. For the sphere retains its balance and stands as a coherent world, the envelope of the storm (the landscape) and its “eye” or axis (Uncas) had to be aesthetically similar: quiet, magnificent and majestic. The choice of Eric Schweig in this regard was therefore highly relevant.
Michael Mann, the director, pushes further the correlation between the axis and the envelope of the sphere (between Uncas and the landscape) by dressing Uncas in the same kind of green as the surrounding forest. Also, in the opening scene of the film where the protagonists hunt a deer, the first close-up of Uncas shows him in a kind of mystical communion with the dead animal lying at his feet. One understands immediately that Uncas has his own secret inner world, spiritually connected to nature, which contributes to put him aside the main turbulent narrative, filled with flesh, blood and heightened feelings. Again, it places him in “the eye of the storm “and in a pivotal role at the calm center of the story.
The director of The Last of the Mohicans uses another trick to reinforce the pivotal role of Uncas: to my knowledge, he gave Eric Schweig the only “look into the camera” scene of the film, in the sequence near a river where Uncas looks at Alice and is attracted to her for the first time. In classic movies, the “look into the camera” is usually taboo, because it breaks the convention of the closed and imaginary world of the film (the diegetic space). As a spectator, when we are suddenly “watched” by one of the actors, we realize our awkward position of voyeur. But to get a real “look into the camera” that breaks this convention, the actor must look at the camera without another actor (or object), which may be required as the recipient of that look. Editing in The Last of the Mohicans clearly indicates that Uncas was looking at Alice, not “us”, so, the director has instead used the “look into the camera”s power of “phasing”. If it avoids breaking the film’s convention, this “phasing” places Uncas even more off the reality in which all the other characters evolve, and locates him in a floating and undefined space-time outside the temporality of the narrative.
Michael Mann also used another film technique to accentuate this strange effect around Uncas: the slow motion in the sequence behind the falls, when Uncas took Alice into his arms. This brief change of rhythm in the temporality of the film contributes once again to exit Uncas in this quiet and mysterious place at the center of the turmoil.
Finally, the symmetry of the opening scene (the deer killed falling from a bank) and the closing scene (Uncas falling from the cliff, again mystically connected in his own death to the deer of the first scene), allows the envelope of the sphere (the landscape) and its axis (Uncas) to collide, reaching a huge emotional implosion which appeases the tension of the film and ends the epic.
Contrary to some reviews, I think that Eric Schweig was not simply displaying his breathtaking beauty in The Last of the Mohicans, despite the lack of space offered to Uncas in the script (1). I think he understood very well (intuitively or consciously, I do not know…) the challenge of this axis role by exploiting his “presence” and by acting fairly and steadily, with the necessary subtle expressions: natural humanity and tenderness in the scenes with the Camerons and Alice / discrete fraternal complicity with the hero / strength and concentration without emphasis in the fight scenes. He would have acted with more intensity, and the “eye of the storm” would have moved into the vortex of the action and created chaos instead of spiral energy. He would have acted with less intensity, and Uncas would have completely lost the little substance he has, and the axis would have collapsed on itself, leaving the film without balance.
During my studies in cinema, the teachers taught us how each element of decoration, each color, each object in a film could bring an unexpected symbolic meaning which could influence the message carried by the script, as a kind of narrative underlying. A director must be aware of this phenomenon and control all visuals and narrative aspects of his film if he wants to preserve his original message. All cinematic devices used in the film to highlight Uncas for the structural needs of the scenario contributed to throw the spotlight on Eric Schweig’s performance which, while not spectacular or mature, has therefore taken a surprising and fascinating aura.
The Last of the Mohicans in Black and White
The Last of the Mohicans BEHIND THE SCENE
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: James Fenimore Cooper (novel)
Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Eric Schweig, Russell Means, Jodhi May, Wes Studi, Steven Waddington.
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(1) The original script had several scenes for Uncas that have been cut during editing, including a rather explicit love scene with Alice.