The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
“The first American hero.”
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means
Synopsis: Three trappers protect a British Colonel’s daughters in the midst of the French and Indian War.
The lingering shots of the verdant, unspoiled forests of North Carolina (standing in for the Adirondacks, which now bear the scars of decades of logging) which open and close Michael Mann’s version of The Last of the Mohicans are lent incredible poignancy by the drama sandwiched between them; they suggest a sense of permanence in a time of violent change, and provide a link between the present and the past. While the film’s dramatic storyline and central romance place it firmly in the realm of conventional blockbuster, The Last of the Mohicans goes deeper than most, exploring the inevitable conflict arising from competing cultures in a new land that promises seemingly endless opportunity and wealth. Mann based his version not on James Fenimore Cooper’s difficult novel, but George B. Seitz’s 1936 movie in which Randolph Scott starred as Hawkeye, a white man raised from a child by Chingachgook, one of the last surviving members of the Mohawk tribe. The 1936 film was one of Mann’s earliest movie memories, and while his version retains the studio formula of good guy versus bad, the people are more than stock characters with no perceptible life beyond the confines of the film. They are shaped by their past. Even the exploits of Magua, the Huron brave who is the obvious villain of the piece, are explained by his desire to avenge his murdered children.
Hawkeye is played here by Daniel Day-Lewis (Stars and Bars, In the Name of the Father) with typical commitment to a part for which he must have seemed a curious choice back in 1992. With flowing black locks and brooding looks he certainly fits the part, and his preparation for the role, during which he received instruction in wilderness survival from a man who dressed and lived his life like an 18th Century frontiersmen, was as exhaustive as we’ve now learned to expect. His performance is virile and energetic. He’s comfortable with the physical demands of the role, but he also displays a measure of reserve and introspection which points to the tacit moral code by which Hawkeye and his adopted people led their lives.
The plot sees Hawkeye, his adoptive father Chingachgook (Russell Means – 29 Palms) and brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) rescuing Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), her frail sister, Alice (Jodhi May – Flashbacks of a Fool) and Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington – 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Carrington) from an ambush by Huron warriors led by the fearsome Magua (Wes Studi – Heat) during the height of the French and Indian War. The women are the daughters of Colonel Edmund Munro (Maurice Roeves – When Eight Bells Toll), the British officer in command of Fort William Henry with whom they hope to be reunited. Upon arrival at the fort, however, they find it besieged by the French, and within three days of its defences being breached.
Because Heyward won’t confirm Hawkeye’s assertion that the marauding Huron are targeting homesteads, Munro refuses to allow Colonialists fighting on the side of the British to return home to protect their families. But Heyward’s reticence is coloured by his resentment of the growing romance between Hawkeye and Cora – who recently rejected his own proposal of marriage. The Colonialists depart anyway, under the cover of night, and with the assistance of Hawkeye, who is subsequently jailed for sedition. But when the victorious French allow the British to leave the fort and return to Britain, Hawkeye must once again rescue Cora and her sister from the Hurons.
Day-Lewis’s immersion in the role of Hawkeye is so complete that, for the duration of the movie, he dispels our memories of his other roles. He even finds ways to lend substance to the rather rushed and under-developed romance between Hawkeye and Cora that drives the plot. Cora is a woman of quiet strength and independence, a woman who doesn’t complain or falter, a good match for Hawkeye, and although working with less screen time than Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe does a fine job of conveying that inner strength and resolve. Unfortunately, the corresponding romance between Alice and Uncas is glossed over to such a degree that its tragic conclusion is robbed of much of its impact.
An 18th Century period piece is an unusual choice of project for a filmmaker like Mann, who’s more often associated with urban crime thrillers like Heat and Miami Vice, and is clearly a labour of love, a chance to pay tribute to the movie and story that fostered his love of cinema. His attention to period detail is near-faultless, and his literate screenplay (co-written with Christopher Crowe) thankfully distances itself from the patterns and dialogue of the late 20th Century without becoming inaccessible to a modern audience. Also key to the film’s success, and instrumental in evoking the distant era in which the story takes place, is the sublime score by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones.
(Reviewed 8th January 2016)