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The Last of the Mohicans (1992)


The Last of the Mohicans is an epic adventure story set in the North American Colonies during the Seven Years War. Two Englishwomen, Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) and her sister Alice (Jodhi May), are being escorted by British soldiers to Fort William Henry, a British fort commanded by their father, Colonel Munro (Maurice Roëves). But their native guide is the treacherous Magua (Wes Studi), who is secretly loyal to the Huron tribe and their French allies.

En route to the fort, Magua leads the British group into a trap, where they are ambushed by a Huron war party. Most of the British are wiped out, but Cora, Alice and their escort, Major Duncan Heywood (Steven Waddington), are rescued by frontiersman Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), his adopted Mohican father Chingachgook (Russell Means) and the latter's son Uncas (Eric Schweig). The three men escort them to Fort William Henry, only to find the British forces there are under a desperate siege.

At the fort, Hawkeye is arrested for encouraging colonial militiamen to desert in order to defend their homes against a Huron war party. Deprived of reinforcements, the British reach a truce with the French and leave the fort, but the Hurons, led by Magua, attack them anyway. In the ensuing struggle, the two women are captured by the Hurons, and Cora is sentenced to death.


Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye
Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye

First published in 1826, The Last of the Mohicans is the best known of James Fenimore Cooper's five “leatherstocking tales”, although it was actually the second published. The first book, The Pioneers was published in 1823, and there were another three instalments, The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841). The Last of the Mohicans has been adapted for the screen several times, with film versions in 1920, 1932 and 1936, the latter with Randolph Scott as Hawkeye, and a number of different TV series. The 1992 film was based partly on Philip Dunne's script for the 1936 film and came from an unexpected source, director, co-writer and co-producer Michael Mann, probably still best known at the time for producing the 1980s TV series Miami Vice.

The Last of the Mohicans is a sweeping adventure of an agreeably old school kind, with sieges, battles, savage Indian attacks, canoe chases and people leaping off of waterfalls. The action takes place during the Seven Years War (1756-63), probably the first “world war”. The fighting that took place in North America between Britain and France and their respective Indian allies, is usually known in the US as The French and Indian War.

The film weaves real incidents into the narrative, including the siege of Fort William Henry at Lake George, and the subsequent Indian attack on the British soldiers as they left the fort. This breaking of the agreed truce in the film is presumably the work of Magua, although in the real ambush, the Indians attacked because they felt cheated of the war booty they were expecting.

The screenplay, by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe, takes considerable liberties with the source novel, with major characters who live in the book being killed off in the film and vice versa. So if you read the book (and I don't really recommend it) you may find that your favourite character doesn't have the happy ending they were given in the film.

“Hawkeye”, of course, is just a nickname. In the novel, he goes by the glorious name of Natty Bummpo, but in the film it's changed to Nathaniel Poe (can't think why they changed it!). In the book the character was a scout for the British Army, which made his involvement in the plot much more plausible. But in the film he is turned into a rugged frontiersman without particular allegiance to either side, and not much bothered about the war that's raging around him. This turns him into a more romantic figure, an outsider, a man who can shoot and kill, but is not going to sign up to no army or take someone else's orders. It's a curious change though, because Hawkeye does spend much of the film acting like a British scout, escorting a British party, helping them through the French lines into a besieged fort, and shooting enemy attackers.


Daniel Day-Lewis running through a battlefield in The Last of the Mohicans
Hawkeye running to the rescue as the British column is attacked

We should probably get this out of the way now, but it probably also needs to be said that this version of Hawkeye is a total female fantasy figure. A running, jumping, shooting, masculine adventure hero, with his chiselled features, native folk wisdom, refusal to bow to authority and, as an orphan, he also has a sad back story to give him just a hint of vulnerability. It's no wonder that the beautiful, relatively sheltered Cora Munro should fall for him, and not for the stuffy British officer (Steven Waddington) who mistakenly thinks they have something going. The film's version of Hawkeye is also rather a 1990s conception, with his portrayal as a man at one with the natural environment, and boasting untamed, flowing hair so glorious that the film could almost be sponsored by Head and Shoulders.

At this time, Daniel Day-Lewis was a British actor who had mostly appeared in period dramas and art house films, and who had recently won an Oscar for playing the painter Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989). Hawkeye is not really a part that requires an actor of Daniel Day-Lewis's stature, even at this stage of his career, but he probably thought it would help him transition from lauded actor to film star, and he may have found the historical background interesting. Since it's Daniel Day-Lewis, his preparation for the part was extensive, and included living off the land and learning to hunt, fish, skin animals and shoot muskets. But even the heavyweight casting of Day-Lewis can't disguise the fact that Hawkeye is barely characterised beyond being a hunky bad ass dude who lives in the woods.

Cora is not characterised much either, but Madeleine Stowe isn't quite as good an actor as Daniel Day-Lewis and she can't sustain an English accent for very long. It doesn't help that she gets some of the script's corniest lines, at one point even having to say “The whole world's on fire” with a straight face, as Hawkeye embraces her, accompanied by the obligatory soaring music. Although the director at least has the decency to partially obscure her face when she has to say it. It has to be said that there's a fair amount of corn in the script and some of Day-Lewis's dialogue is almost equally ropey, but he's a good enough actor to make it sound less painful than it deserves.


Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye, and British soldiers
Hawkeye under arrest for sedition

Things are almost as uncomfortable when the script delves into the political and historical background. Some of the dialogue sounds like it was lifted from a Revolutionary War era propaganda pamphlet, with the militia leader declaring at the fort that “Their law no longer has any rightful authority over us, all they have over us then is tyranny and I will not live under that yolk” (in other words, I'm off). Mann's view of 1750s North America is obviously heavily influenced by the Revolutionary War of 20 years later, with colonists shown very reluctantly joining the local militia out of a grudging but frayed loyalty to the crown. In reality, the British had little difficulty in finding enthusiastic recruits for the militia, because their main purpose was to defend their own communities against Indian attacks.

It's not just the dialogue, but the style that can be a little bit corny, with sweeping music every time Hawkeye and Cora embrace, something they even do in the middle of a battlefield. When Hawkeye leaves Cora at the waterfall and tells her he will come and find her, it's followed by Clannad warbling “I Will Find You” which is just a little bit too obvious.

The film also stumbles towards its conclusion a bit, introducing a romantic sub-plot between Alice (Jodhi May) and Uncas (Eric Schweig) that isn't properly developed and then creating a significant parting between Hawkeye and Cora which is resolved all too easily.

I'm also not totally convinced by the military tactics on display. Would British soldiers really be so easily befuddled by a relatively simple ambush? And would the Hurons really attack the British column from both sides, meaning that they will be shooting at their own men on the opposite side?

There's no doubt, though, that the film does have something, and it's slightly glorious the way that Michael Mann decides to embrace the story's sense of adventure, danger, and romance. He tells it as a sweeping tale of grand emotions, grand passions and even grander scenery. And while the film has its more romantic flourishes, they are balanced by a convincing sense of authenticity in its mise en scène, coupled with scenes of genuine violence and savagery. Part of the success of the film is that it's aimed to please both the boys and the girls in the audience. Battle scenes, violence and military manoeuvres for the women and romantic lovey-dovey stuff for the men (hey, let's not gender stereotype!).


Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Uncas (Eric Schweig)
Hawkeye and Uncas (Eric Schweig)

The film is marked by its attention to detail in its weapons, costuming and other period trappings. It's also a very handsome production and is often beautifully photographed by Michael Mann's regular cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who was rewarded with a BAFTA award and nominated for various other cinematography awards for his work on the film. Although the story is set in the Adirondack Mountains in present-day New York State, most of the filming took place in North Carolina, in and around Asheville in the Blue Mountains and on the Biltmore estate. A replica of Fort William Henry was constructed on the reservoir Lake James for the siege scenes.

Despite my comments about the slightly corny use of music, the score itself is actually pretty good. Perhaps surprisingly, because it's essentially two scores, the original composer Trevor Jones having fallen out with Michael Mann and been replaced by Randy Edelman. The score is a mix of synthesizers, traditional instruments, ominous drums and sweeping melodies. The second half of the film makes extensive use of a Scottish reel, “The Gael” by Dougie MacLean, although the music's oddly formal quality doesn't seem entirely appropriate for the film's action finale.

The supporting cast is interesting for finding early roles for some actors who would become a lot better known, including Jodhi May as Cora's sister Alice, Wes Studi as Magua, Jared Harris as a British recruiting officer, and Pete Postlethwaite, who would co-star with Daniel Day-Lewis in In the Name of the Father the following year, as a British officer. Also among the cast is Patrice Chéreau, the French film and theatre director, as the French General Montcalm.

The film's portrayal of Native Americans is intriguing. The Last of the Mohicans followed shortly after Dances With Wolves (1990) re-imagined the western, with the US Cavalry as the bad guys and the native Americans as wise, noble and peace-loving. The Last of the Mohicans follows to some extent in this vein and, significantly, Chingachgook is played by Native American activist Russell Means. Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachgook are portrayed as being so in touch with nature that they wouldn't even dream of killing a deer without being respectful and saying a prayer over it afterwards.


Wes Studi as Magua, holding a tomahawk
Wes Studi as the Huron Magua

To make the Native American villain Magua more acceptable, the film suggests that he has been corrupted by his dealings with Europeans and by his subsequent desire to become a trader and conqueror. He is also out for revenge on Colonel Munro for an attack which killed his family, giving him a sympathetic back story that doesn't appear in the book. This does mean that the film carries more than a whiff of the “noble savage” stereotype, with Indians who can only be bad if white men have made them so.

Conversely, Hawkeye is portrayed as a white man who has been softened and made wise by his Indian upbringing, and so is almost as noble as an actual Indian. The warlike Magua and the noble Hawkeye are therefore at odds with their own peoples. So the film is obviously designed not to offend liberal sensibilities too much, presenting clichéd spiritual Native Americans versus often greedy and duplicitous Europeans.

But this is undermined by the film's own action and narrative, as well as the historical events it portrays, like the Hurons' massacre of the British as they leave Fort William Henry. The Huron war parties are violent and savage, scalping and mutilating their victims, breaking a truce and slaughtering simple homesteaders. When we first see the Huron chief, Sachem (Mike Philips), he looks like the kind of wise old Indian sage who would have been played by Chief Dan George 20 years earlier. But he instead turns out to be cruel and ruthless, ordering one of the tribe's female captives to be burned alive and the other to be forced to marry Magua. The film's portrayal of Native Americans is therefore ultimately equivocal, flirting with politically correct revisionism without wholly embracing it.

Other than Magua, the most interesting character in the film is Major Heywood, played by Steven Waddington. Heywood is arguably the secret hero of The Last of the Mohicans. He is portrayed as a bit pompous and insufferable, and he puts the interests of saving the fort ahead of the interests of defending the colonists' homes. But on the plus side, he is incredibly brave and stands by to defend Alice and Cora when Hawkeye leaves them to be captured by the Hurons. He's ready to fight to the death in a futile defence of the fort and is prepared to die to save the woman he loves, even though she's made it clear that she has no interest in him. It's possible that Michael Mann realised that Heywood is actually a more conventionally heroic and chivalrous character than Hawkeye, and so Waddington was directed to play him as unsympathetically as possible.


Steven Waddington, Eric Schweig, Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May
Steven Waddington as Major Heywood, with Eric Schweig, Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May

Or maybe he intended it as a sly commentary on relationships between men and women. Heywood always stands by the two women, respects them, cares about their needs and wants, and risks his life for them. So obviously Cora hates him for it. Heywood thinks that his actions will be rewarded with Cora's love and believes that friendship and respect are a suitable basis for a marriage, whereas Cora feels passion for the hunky Hawkeye that she will never feel for Heywood.

While Hawkeye is clearly interested in Cora, he doesn't bow and scrape or cater to her every whim, and he is reluctant to risk his life if he feels the odds are against him. When they split up at the waterfall, it's presented as a grand, romantic moment, but in reality it's anything but. Hawkeye tells her he will find her and that “If they don't kill you, they'll take you up north to the Huron land.” How romantic! So you run off, and if I'm not slaughtered by the Indians you'll come and get me? Gee thanks. Laters!

I suppose we could say that this scene plays into a sort of sub-theme of The Last of the Mohicans, that European ideals of honour and chivalry don't have a place on the frontier, where the only thing that matters is survival. Heywood calls Hawkeye a coward for leaving the women, but even though Heywood stays, there's not much he can do and he is quickly captured and beaten up by the Indians. Ultimately, Heywood's bravery and chivalry don't get him very far. Similarly, when the British march out of Fort William Henry, they do so on the basis of a truce that the Hurons are not going to honour.

The film presents the British in a slightly clichéd way, as stiff and formal and not really suited to the untamed wilds of the frontier. British soldiers wear bright uniforms and march conspicuously across  the landscape, while Hawkeye and the Indians can slip through it and disappear. Back at base, the officers sit on the lawn and sip tea as if they are still in England. The implication in the film seems to be that the British won't thrive in North America unless they change and embrace a different way of life, as Hawkeye has done and as Cora is tempted to.

The relationship between Heywood and Cora is probably also intended to represent a parallel with the relationship between Britain and America; not antagonistic, but slightly strained and uncomprehending. When Heywood proposes marriage to a reluctant Cora, he tells her that she should listen to the advice of her family and trust them to look after her interests, just as Britain expects the American colonists to trust the mother country to look after their interests.

The film, of course, implies that ultimately neither Britain nor France can be trusted to look after American interests. The British renege on the agreement to let the militia go home to defend their homes, and the French side with Huron war parties who slaughter civilians, and they fail to uphold their side of a truce because they are unable to control their native allies.

All of this points to the fact that The Last of the Mohicans is unexpectedly thematically rich for what is essentially a romantic action-adventure film.


Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May
Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May), captured by the Hurons

The Last of the Mohicans is also an unusual film in that it doesn't bear much resemblance to anything else in Michael Mann's filmography, or in Daniel Day-Lewis's come to that. And although the film was a critical and commercial success, it wasn't much imitated and didn't lead to a revival in this genre, although it probably gave some encouragement to later 1990s historical adventures like Rob Roy and Braveheart (both 1995). The film does have a sort of semi-detached relationship to the short-lived western revival of the early 1990s, but is not really part of it.

Michael Mann hadn't enjoyed much commercial or critical success as a film director in the previous decade, with the misfiring horror film The Keep (1983), a Hannibal Lecter thriller Manhunter (1986) that underperformed at the box office, and a TV movie L.A. Takedown (1989) among his 1980s work. The Last of the Mohicans marked the beginning of a purple patch for him, and he followed it with a run of popular films over the next decade; Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), Ali (2001) and Collateral (2004), although his career later faltered with a run of lacklustre thrillers, beginning with a film version of his TV series Miami Vice in 2006.

As was the fashion in the DVD era, the director prepared a new version of The Last of the Mohicans for DVD. The new version fiddled a bit with the dialogue, including removing some of Hawkeye's supposed wisecracks, which was not a bad idea, lengthened the battle scene at the fort and made some shot changes. The Clannad song was removed and Chingachgook was also given a longer closing speech. The new version was around 5 minutes longer than the original, but not all fans were pleased as this version removed familiar bits as well as adding new ones.

Although it has its flaws, The Last of the Mohicans is an involving and often exciting film, a grand adventure of a type unusual in the early 1990s. It does a fair job of navigating a middle way between showing respect for Native American history and culture while retaining a storyline in which Indians are the main bad guys. The film boasts excellent production values, a sense of visual authenticity and some rousing action scenes. With The Last of the Mohicans Michael Mann reinvigorated James Fenimore Cooper's slightly musty tale and elevated it into a respectable historical epic.


The Last of the Mohicans

Year: 1992
Genre: Adventure, Action, War, Historical
Country: USA
Director: Michael Mann

Cast  Daniel Day-Lewis (Nathaniel Poe, "Hawkeye"), Madeleine Stowe (Cora Munro), Russell Means (Chingachgook), Eric Schweig (Uncas), Jodhi May (Alice Munro), Steven Waddington (Major Duncan Heyward), Wes Studi (Magua), Maurice Roëves (Colonel Munro), Patrice Chéreau (General Montcalm), Edward Blatchford (Jack Winthrop), Terry Kinney (John Cameron), Tracey Ellis (Alexandra Cameron), Justin M. Rice (James Cameron), Dennis Banks (Ongewasgone), Pete Postlethwaite (Captain Beams), Colm Meaney (Major Ambrose), Mac Andrews (General Webb), Malcolm Storry (Phelps), David Schofield (Sergeant Major), Eric D. Sandgren (Coureur De Bois), Mike Phillips (Sachem), Mark A. Baker (Colonial man), Dylan Baker (Captain De Bougainville), Tim Hopper (Ian), Gregory Zaragoza (Abenaki Chief), Scott Means (Abenaki warrior), William J. Bozic Jr. (French artillery officer), Patrick Fitzgerald (Webb's adjutant), Mark Joy (Henri), Steve Keator (Colonial representative), Jared Harris (British Lieutenant)

Screenplay Michael Mann, Christopher Crowe, based on the 1936 screenplay by Philip Dunne, adaptation by John L. Balderston, Paul Perez and Daniel Moore, and on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper  Producers Michael Mann, Hunt Lowry  Cinematography Dante Spinotti  Production designer Wolf Kroeger  Art Directors Robert Guerra, Richard Holland  Editors Dov Hoenig, Arthur Schmidt  Music Trevor Jones, Randy Edelman  Costume designer Elsa Zamparelli

Running time 112 mins   Colour   Widescreen Panavision
Production company Morgan Creek International  Distributor Twentieth Century Fox (US), Warner Bros. (UK)


Comments

  1. Very nice and detailed review! I don't think I've seen the movie since it came out but I remember I liked it. I should rewatch.

    "Hawkeye is a total female fantasy figure". I'd say you're right about that. But hey, it's alright. :) I don't think Day-Lewis was ever that sexy again.

    On a different note, I'd like to add your blog to my blog role.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I was too young to notice it the first time I saw it, but it seemed really obvious this time.

      I'm flattered that you want to add my blog to your blog roll. I've thought about adding a blog roll myself, but I don't think it's possible with this theme.

      Delete
    2. Those pesky different themes. :)

      Delete
  2. Terrific review of a stunning film. There is so much I enjoy in this film. I have long wanted to see this on the big screen(surely they was it was intended to be seen).

    I have never quite understood the fuss over Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe in this film, they are both ok, but I don't think their performances are that amazing. Wes Studi and the rest of the cast are all much more worthy of praise and attention in my opinion.

    The music is out of the world. The scenery is beautiful.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Maddy. I thought this film would probably appeal to you!

      I agree that there's a lot to enjoy in it. It feels visually authentic in a way that's very immersive, the costuming, weaponry and other historical details are very convincing and the scenery is indeed lovely and the score surprisingly great.

      I think the achievement of Stowe and Day-Lewis is to invest a bit more life into characters who are slightly one-dimensional, but no I don't think they are especially great performances otherwise.


      Delete

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