Seamlessly blending together elements of multiple genres, including historical drama, action, adventure, war epic, and romance, director Michael Mann paints a beautiful and breathtaking picture of the violence, conflict, and romanticism of the American colonial-era frontier in his film The Last of the Mohicans. Utilizing his accumulative knowledge of visual storytelling, which he first obtained during his early years as a television director, Mann takes the adventure film, the genre to which The Last of the Mohicans belongs despite its unique qualities, to new heights of sophistication, realism, and breadth of scope. He also heightens the genre's emotional sway over the audience to an almost hypnotic level by augmenting the film with a highly evocative score and by casting talented character actors capable of handling the story's archetypal figures with a sense of depth and humanity, which is something that is frequently absent in American "genre' films.
The film's screenplay was written by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe and was, of course, based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper. However, the film couldn't really be said to be a pure adaptation of the novel since it takes so many liberties with Cooper's original tale, which in truth is, rather lacking as a serious piece of literature. In the book, The Last of the Mohicans, readers are absorbed by shallow adventure and old-fashioned, overtly masculine characters. The book makes numerous contrivances (Mark Twain wrote a scathing criticism of Cooper's writing) that are simply too convenient or too preposterous to be believable and the characters are devoid of any real complexity or motivation. But the film, on the other hand, is believable; at least as much as any adventure film goes. What Mann and Crowe do, and there are certainly some who would say that this is a travesty to the book, is deconstruct the story and essentially strip it down to its bare bones. They then developed a more interesting backdrop than the novel, by juxtaposing romance with danger and the political intrigues of the French-Indian War. The two screenwriters also drew heavily from the 1936 screenplay by Philip Dunne, which was based on a prior adaptation by John L. Balderston, Paul Perez, and Daniel Moore. Before Mann's filmed version, there had been numerous film and stage adaptations of The Last of the Mohicans, and while some were quite good (or at least entertaining), others felt sluggish and musty, which is not unlike how the book feels to contemporary readers. Michael Mann, having confessed to being obsessed with what could be called "artificial reality" (creating an immaculate and believable world where improbable situations arise), spent much of his time researching the historical period in which the film takes place. He also ensured that the film's costumes, props, and sets were all accurate to the times, and this works to his benefit in more ways than one since it lends a support to the actors who must transform themselves into people of the era. It could be said that, much as there are "Method" actors, Mann is a "Method" filmmaker. And this film is his masterpiece.
We are first introduced to Hawkeye while he and his adopted father, Chingachgook, and his adopted brother, Uncas, set out through the vast forests of 1757 New York in pursuit of a deer. The exciting hunt proves to be a success, so Chingachgook and his two sons take the deer to their friends' home at the Camerons' ranch. There they eat with John Cameron, his wife, and children while discussing the war between England and the French and their Indian allies. The next day a British officer comes to the settlement to enlist the settlers and tells them they must form a colonial militia to aid the English in their fight with France for control of the Americas.
Meanwhile, the English Major Duncan Heyward is sent to escort Colonel Munro's two daughters, Cora and Alice, to Fort William Henry. A Mohawk Indian named Magua is to act as their guide on the journey. However, Magua is a traitor and, in fact, he is a Huron and an ally to the French. He leads Major Heyward, Cora, Alice, and a company of English troops into an ambush. Luckily, Chingachgook, Uncas, and Hawkeye were tracking the Huron war party and intervened, driving off the Huron attackers and saving Major Heyward and Colonel Munro's two daughters. It's decided that they shall guide Heyward and the two beautiful young women to Fort William Henry in lieu of the treacherous Magua.
On their trek they cross the Camerons' farm, where John, Alexandra, and their children have all been slaughtered by a war party. Cora, Colonel Munro's eldest daughter, is horrified when Hawkeye forbids anyone to bury the Cameron family. Later, while taking refuge deep within the forest, Hawkeye explains that they could not bury the poor, dead Camerons because it would have been a tell-tale sign to the French and the Huron that they had passed through that land and would clue them in on where they were going. Cora, who had been growing disenchanted with the elitism, superficiality, and materialism of the aristocratic British world that she was raised in, finds herself drawn to the rugged Hawkeye and the life he leads in the beautiful yet dangerous wilderness. Suddenly, Cora's eyes are opened to a world of passion, savagery, and survival, and it awakens within her a deep longing for Hawkeye.
When they arrive at the fort they find that it's under siege by the French. They manage to sneak into the fort, where they learn that Colonel Munro is low on ammunition, that he has fewer cannons than the French, and is desperate for reinforcements. In spite of the fact that the settlers' homes are being attacked and the colonial militia's presence at the fort will not be able to shift the balance of the battle in the favor of the British, Colonel Munro refuses to let them leave and return to their families. Colonel Munro warns that any man guilty of sedition will be hanged and any man attempting to escape the fort will be shot for desertion. After Hawkeye helps some of the colonials to escape, he is imprisoned, but before he can be tried for sedition Colonel Munro is forced to surrender to the French. An agreement is made and the French allow the British soldiers and the settlers to go free.
But Magua, obsessed with carrying out a bloody revenge against Colonel Munro, who he holds responsible for his children's deaths, plans an ambush on the retreating British. When the attack is carried out and Magua's Huron warriors strike, Hawkeye escapes from British custody and seeks out Cora. While the battle rages on around them, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, Uncas, Cora, Alice, and major Heyward reunite and escape together in a pair of canoes and then seek sanctuary in a cave beneath a waterfall. It becomes apparent that Magua and his warriors will find them so Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas decide to leave knowing that if they do not then there will certainly be a fight and lives will be lost unnecessarily. Also, Hawkeye understands that Magua will not kill Heyward, Cora, or Alice because he wants to present them to the Huron chief as trophies of war and must therefore take them back to Huron lands in the north. Hawkeye takes Cora aside and promises her that he will not abandon her and tells her that she must endure, that she must stay alive because no matter how long it takes, no matter where she is taken he will find her. When Magua and his warriors do find Heyward, Cora, and Alice, they do as suspected and take them north to Huron lands. Desperately tracking them, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas search for any sign of their party. But it will lead them into the Huron lands and then to a final climactic showdown upon the cliffs that few will survive.
The film features a strong cast, including Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye, Madeleine Stowe as Cora Munro, Jodhi May as Alice Munro, Russell Means as Chingachgook, Eric Schweig as Uncas, Steven Waddington as Major Heyward, Wes Studi as Magua, and Maurice Roëves as Colonel Munro.
Daniel Day-Lewis, best known for his intensity and versatility in character-actor roles, may seem an odd choice to play the lean, sinewy action hero, but he brings a level of concentration and passion to the character of Hawkeye, which makes him thoroughly believable.
Madeleine Stowe seems destined to play intelligent and empowered damsels in distress and here she does so to near perfection, imbuing Cora Munro with a fiery independent spirit and as all that she cares about is taken away from her, we, the audience, can't help but be devastated along with her (at least she gets her man at the end).
Jodhi May makes her first (and last?) appearance in a big budget major motion picture playing the naïve and sensitive Alice. With her extremely expressive eyes and painterly beauty May gives a wonderful performance, which is apparent in her unforgettable final scene.
Native American character actor Russell Means, who is superb playing the stoic yet paternal Chingachgook, lends a cultural authenticity to his character.
Eric Schweig is both sensitive and masculine playing Uncas, the son of Chingachgook.
Steven Waddington is appropriately irritating in the role of the arrogant British Major Heyward, who only finds redemption through one final act of defiance.
Wes Studi is terrific as the bloodthirsty, vengeful Magua, who meets with an equally bloody, vengeful end.
Maurice Roëves is quite good as Colonel Munro, a man who believes that his country must come before all else, even his children.
Adding to the film's sense of romanticism and adventure is the score composed by veteran film and television composers Trevor Jones (The Dark Crystal) and Randy Edelman (MacGyver), who use the traditional instruments of the colonial era in combination with modern orchestrations to create an enthralling soundtrack capable of capturing the moods of audiences. The score, which is one of the best in recent years in my opinion, is both epic and intimate, and really provides the film with its spirit of romance and excitement.
Also enhancing the film exponentially is the cinematography by Dante Spinotti, whose crystalline images of vast emerald forests and majestic mountains are supremely fit for the film's story. From sweeping shots of grand vistas seemingly untouched by man to the cold battlements of the soldiers, Spinotti effectively sets the visual tone of the entire film with his use of natural Earth-tone colors.
What did you think of this review?