By Ty Burr
Updated March 12, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

There’s little that Hollywood could do to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans that wouldn’t be an improvement. Okay, maybe a hip-hop version. It’s not simply that the book’s florid style has aged badly — after all, Cooper was imitating the Tom Clancy of his day, Sir Walter Scott. It’s that structurally, the novel is a mess. Following the adventures of frontier scout Natty Bumppo — better known as Hawkeye — and his Mohican pals Chingachgook and Uncas during the French and Indian War of the 1750s, Mohicans reads as one overwritten chase scene after another. To quote Mark Twain, ”Cooper hadn’t any more invention than a horse, and I don’t mean a high-class horse, either.”

So if Hollywood has tended to take liberties with this musty classroom classic, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The upshot, however, is that the five movie versions of Mohicans available on video reflect their own times — their notions of what a hero looks like or how an Indian should act — more than they do Cooper’s. The only thing the blood-and-thunder new version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) has in common with, say, the 1932 dozen-chapter serial The Last of the Mohicans (1932) is the characters’ names. Actually, not even that: Apparently fearing that ’90s audiences might mistake Natty Bumppo for a reggae singer, the 1992 film calls the hero Nathaniel Poe.

That 230-minute serial (there are at least four earlier silent versions) remains the most faithful to the novel, for better and worse. All of the book’s literal cliff-hangers fit the serial format, and Cooper’s view of Indians as sentimentalized ”children of nature” is reflected in a stagy acting style left over from silents. Veteran character actor Harry Carey makes a stalwart Hawkeye, but inventive camera work can’t overcome the pitifully low budget.

The 1936 Last of the Mohicans was extravagant by comparison, starring square-jawed Randolph Scott as Hawkeye and featuring an explosive attack on Fort William Henry that was state-of-the-art for Hollywood at that time. So was the romance between Hawkeye and British officer’s daughter Alice Munro (Binnie Barnes), a feature notably missing from the novel. Most curious about this Mohicans is the pronounced pro-British bias: The American colonials are portrayed as pigheaded for not wanting to fight alongside English soldiers, and in the end even Hawkeye marches off to kick French butt in Canada!

It’s back to poverty row for 1947’s Last of the Redmen, a laughable B flick. Everything’s wrong here: There’s no Chingachgook, no Fort William Henry; a Delaware chief wears a classic Plains Indian war bonnet; and Hawkeye is played by Michael O’Shea, an Irish vaudevillian best described as Jon Lovitz with a brogue. What comes across more than anything else is contempt for history.

At least the 1977 made-for-TV Last of the Mohicans makes a stab at getting it right, laying off the love stuff and even dragging in Cooper’s comic-relief character, a prim twit named David Gamut whom none of the other films bother with (this version kills him off halfway through, as if realizing the mistake). Since the ’60s have happened by now, Uncas, Chingachgook, and even the villainous Huron Magua are treated as more than colorful subhumans. Too bad everything’s so dull. Steve Forrest is the film’s emblematic Hawkeye: an exact replica of the guy on the Brawny paper-towel package.

So what has director Michael Mann — best known for producing Miami Vice — learned from these previous versions? Apparently to obliterate Cooper’s weaknesses with pure style. What makes this the most exciting Mohicans to hit the screen is a feel for upper New York State in 1757 that’s breathtakingly hyperreal: From the opening sequence of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye silently racing through the forest, you’re sucked into the belief that you’re watching history.

It’s not, of course; it’s Hollywood. But Mann sidesteps the issue by adapting Cooper’s chase-happy structure to the visual language of music videos. It wouldn’t work if not for Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman’s majestic score, and the production doesn’t stint elsewhere, either: The design, editing, and stunning camera work all contribute to Mohicans‘ poetic muscle. (And they’re all retained on the wide-screen-only video release; there’s a simple, eloquent shot of a bridge that by itself can make you appreciate letterboxing.)

There are other signs of our times. Day-Lewis’ dashing scout is now a full-fledged romantic lead and a sensitive, long-haired New Male, to boot; the love scenes between him and Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) hang over the movie like an erotic haze. The film’s bloodiness may be an honest reflection of frontier brutality, but it’s also in keeping with the rock-’em-sock-’em violence of post-’80s cinema.

But for once the depiction of Native Americans seems on the money. The Mohicans, Hurons, and Delawares in this movie are not the savage children of Cooper or the cardboard ooga-boogas of early Hollywood, or even the New Age angels of Dances With Wolves. Mann does something fairly daring: He surrounds the tribes with as much anthropological detail as possible and lets it go at that. Without the cultural baggage, we can at last see that the evil Magua is, next to Hawkeye himself, the story’s most fully developed character (especially in Wes Studi’s maleficent performance). A movie in which the Indians are more three-dimensional than the whites? That’s a kind of progress Cooper never envisioned. 1992 version: A- 1932 version: C 1936 version: C+ 1947 version: F 1977 version: C-