Movies, hunks, history

October 26, 1992|By Janet Maslin | Janet Maslin,New York Times

Hollywood has lately revived its interest in historical pageantry, and the insurance policy is the longhaired leading man. What better way to attract the dating crowd to, say, the French and Indian War than to provide the sight of Daniel Day-Lewis in form-fitting buckskin?

What better way to send Columbus to the New World with a smile on his face than to give him a coy, beautiful Queen Isabella (Sigourney Weaver) to authorize his mission -- and to turn Columbus into Gerard Depardieu, an actor who clearly appreciates feminine attention wherever he finds it?

It took a lot more than tomahawks to make a box-office success of "The Last of the Mohicans," that's for sure. What it took was the inclusion of heartthrob elements, plus a strain of modern-day silliness, in a story not previously known for its sex appeal.

The reviewer for the New York Times who teasingly complained, in 1936, that the Randolph Scott version of "The Last of the Mohicans" had been made to include a chaste kiss had no idea that James Fenimore Cooper's stodgy Hawkeye would ever become matinee-idol material. Now Mr. Day-Lewis, teamed smolderingly with the beautiful Madeleine Stowe, brings serious chemistry to a role that seemingly had no romantic potential at all.

So "The Last of the Mohicans," thanks to two great-looking, mane-tossing leads who set off sparks merely by staring at each other, offers a lot more natural beauty than rushing waterfalls and unspoiled forests. But those forests are important, since they introduce another part of Hollywood's current formula for histor

ical hindsight.

Both "The Last of the Mohicans" and "1492" are politically correct enough to pay attention to the level of the unspoiled tree canopy (very high) and emphasize hints of eco-tragedy to come. And each of these films makes a point of modernizing its hero in ways that present-day audiences can be trusted to understand.

This just-like-us thinking -- the common but ridiculous notion that celebrities or tabloid victims or unhappy members of the British royal family are at heart like you and me -- is a staple of much modern-day historical fiction.

But it reaches new heights of zaniness in the image of a drawling, laid-back Hawkeye, who at times seems positively Californian (at one point in the film, this former loner is seen amiably visiting with a cabinful of affectionate friends). It gets even crazier in the pulpy writing of "1492," which, according to an opening title, is set against the backdrop of "a ruthless inquisition that persecuted men for daring to dream." Surely they had a better way of putting it back in Columbus' day.

"1492," an unnaturally stiff and talky epic for the director Ridley Scott, presents a Columbus who is no less sensitive than the revamped Hawkeye, and who at one point is even seen in a dropped-waist red dress (on a man with Mr. Depardieu's physique, this is not flattering).

Indeed, the language of the screenplay often borders on bodice-ripping romantic silliness, as when an eager-to-sail-around-the-world Columbus is cautioned: "You must learn to control your passion." At this, of course, an indignant Columbus answers: "Passion is something one cannot control!" Such dialogue can be heard so readily on any soap opera that it sounds crazily out of tune with history.

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