The Last Of The Mohicans
THE FINAL FRONTIER
BY 1992, MICHAEL MANN HAD DIRECTED Manhunter and spent the best part of a decade showrunning Miami Vice. In the years since, crime thrillers have remained his principal passion. Romantic historical action-adventure The Last Of The Mohicans is still an anomaly on his CV. While historically reverent, it doesn’t actually have a lot of time for the James Fenimore Cooper novel on which it’s nominally based. Instead, Mann was channelling the svelte 1936 movie version he’d been indelibly impressed by when he saw it on television as a child. Cooper’s 1826 “classic” — still widely studied on American literature courses — is, to modern eyes, barely readable: laughably written (a tracker picks up a trail under the water of a stream, for example, and the hero spends a significant amount of time disguised as a bear; Mark Twain wrote an essay in 1895 about Cooper’s copious “Literary Offenses”) and at odds with 21st-century sensibilities in its siding with the colonial invaders. As a considerable landowner himself, Cooper was of the opinion that the potential the whites saw for the exploitation of the land far outweighed any Native American rights to it.
Mann’s film, then, completely subverts the author’s agenda, giving space to the complex factional politics between the British, French and indigenous tribes. While there’s palpable threat from the Huron antagonists, there’s context for their actions. Wes Studi, in particular, gets to be a far more complex villain than he did as a cartoon scalper in Dances With Wolves. Magua can be properly vicious, but we’re left with no illusions about his bitterness under the yoke of colonialism and his own tragic history. The British and French see him as a tame dog, but he’ll bite his “masters” at the first opportunity. And while we might not like him, we can’t really blame him for that. Magua understands the English very well.
Other performances are equally strong. The chameleonic Daniel Daylewis inhabits his character, Hawkeye, as always: while shooting he kept his rifle by his side both on and off set, besides undergoing months of survivalist training. By the time shooting started, he was a functioning frontiersman, capable of living off the land, alone, for weeks at a time. Madeleine Stowe combines preraphaelite beauty with earthy courage as Cora Munro, daughter of the British colonel who is Magua’s most hated enemy; Steven Waddington is stoic as the ultimately hapless Major Heyward; and Russell Means — himself a Native American activist — imbues the final Mohican, Chingachgook, with gravitas and nobility. Like the film, the character is doleful, honourable and deeply sincere.
As Cora’s sister Alice and Chingachgook’s son Uncas, Jodhi May and Eric Schweig admittedly have less material to work with, but they nevertheless manage to convey a love affair entirely through looks. That silence is part of the film’s unique atmosphere. Several of The Last Of The Mohicans’ major moments are accompanied by little more than the ambient whisper of the incredible landscape: a vast, beautiful expanse that dwarfs the action. Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones’ memorable score — a last-minute victory pulled from the jaws of defeat when Mann reversed his decision to go electronic — complements that quiet, rather than drowning it out. If you can take or leave the sudden intrusion of folk group Clannad’s theme, at least they try to be authentic: the lyrics are in English, Mohican and Cherokee.
And then there are those landscapes. Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is key, framing the breathtaking Appalachian vistas (he’s good at dark, smoky interiors too) and capturing any number of amazing moments. There’s the firework display in the distance that’s gradually revealed to be a musket battle; the final wordless sequence on the promontory; and the “I will find you” jump through the waterfall (a similar scene in The Fugitive, released a year later, looks slight in comparison). The violence is visceral, but the emotional moments are equally strong. Even when it’s awash with blood, Spinotti keeps the film beautiful.
Mann has released various cuts of The Last Of The Mohicans in the years since its original release, but the differences are minimal and can be hard to even spot. Crucially, he’s never significantly added to its length. It’s an undeniably epic film, yet it’s lean and has momentum, with the various versions all clocking in at around two hours. Historical adventure filmmaking in the decades since has rarely if ever been this passionate, solemn, or thrilling — at least, not all at once. But the movie does have its descendants. At the end of the film, Hawkeye, Cora and Chingachgook look out from the mountain and consider what lies ahead. Shot in similar locations but set about 70 years later, the battle-torn vistas of The Revenant provide the gloomy answer.
“Historical adventure has rarely been this thrilling.”
1 Hawkeye (Daniel Day-lewis) amid the fray, as the British are attacked by the Huron. 2 Wes Studi as morally complex villain Magua. 3 Hawkeye finds himself in irons after aiding British soldiers to desert.