Film Review: The Last of the Mohicans (1992)


500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival to Americas sparked intense debate over whether the event ultimately resulted in triumph or tragedy. Most of those who would find good arguments for the latter were American natives, and Hollywood, while enthusiastically embracing “political correctness”, tried to exploit sentiments trying to portray of history post-Colombian America from Native American perspective. One of the films that did that in implicit, subtle and ultimately more successful ways was The Last of the Mohicans, 1992 period adventure epic directed by Michael Mann.

The film is based on the eponymous novel by James Fenimore Cooper, which was the greatest hit of early American literature (only to be viciously attacked by later writers and literary scholars over its poor quality). The plot begins in 1757 when two superpowers – Great Britain and France – fight for world supremacy in what is in Europe known as Seven Years’ War. One of the battlefields is North America, resource-rich but relatively sparsely inhabited continent where both countries have colonies, but still have to rely on native tribes as valuable allies. All that is seemingly of little concern to Cora Munro (played by Madeleine Stowe), young British upper class woman who, accompanied by her sister Alice (played by Jodhie May) and chaperoned by Major Duncan Hayward (played by Steven Waddington) is going to meet her father, Colonel Edmund Munro (played by Maurice Roëves), commander of British garrison of Fort William Henry in Adirondack Mountains. Along the way they are betrayed by their Mohawk guide Magua (played by Wes Studi), who is revealed to be Huron working for the French and whose tribesmen ambush and massacre most of Hayward’s unit. Hayward and Munro sisters are rescued by timely arrival of Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), white trapper who had been raised by his Mohican foster father Chingachgook (played by Russell Means). Two of them and Poe’s foster brother Uncas (played by Eric Schweig) lead them to safety only to realise that Fort William Henry is besieged by superior French force commanded by Marquis de Montcalm (played by Patrice Chéreau). After situation becomes hopeless, Colonel Munro accepts generous surrender terms by Montcalm that allow him to leave fortress, but Magua and other native tribesmen in French service sees this as an excellent opportunity for ambush and bloody revenge.

Michael Mann has built reputation in 1980s as the prime author of stylish urban-based thrillers and crime dramas, and the period epic set in North American wilderness during colonial period seemed like a strange choice. Mann nevertheless embraced the challenge with great vigour and invested a lot of talent, trying to show that even such film can show his great sense of style. As a result, The Last of the Mohicans is very beautiful film. Mann, helped by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, shows great natural beauty of unspoiled North Carolina wilderness (which served as substitute for over-developed and over-urbanised upstate New York). Madeleine Stowe, who plays main female character, is one of the most beautiful actresses of her generations. Even protagonist is played by Daniel Day-Lewis in his physical prime and he shows great ease in his first and last role of a dashing romantic hero and man of action. Mann has also invested a lot of effort to make reconstruction of distant past as authentic as possible, with carefully made costumes, props and weapons. Authenticity was pursued also by having Native American actors playing Native American characters, most notably in the case of Cherokee actor Wes Studi who played impressive but complex villain, while American Indian Movement activist Russell Means played regal Chingachgook. Mann also showed his great talent for action, creating plenty of exciting scenes, especially those depicting combat in realistic but not overly gruesome manner.

The Last of the Mohicans was widely praised by critics and popular among the audience, but it is far from being perfect film. The main problem is in the script co-written by Mann and Christopher Crowe which simplified content compared to over-complicated novel, but also made the film looked rushed, especially in the second half which is one huge chase scene. Romantic subplot dealing with Cora who rejects “stiff upper life” British officer for the sake of rugged American individual might look little refreshing, but in the end it turns into melodrama. Unlike the first half, which skilfully provides exposition into complicated situation and issues facing natives and colonists, the ending looks disappointing and rather dark film lacks proper closure. The end relies too much on audience and its knowledge of events that led to creation of United States two decades after the events depicted in The Last of the Mohicans. Yet, despite these flaws, it is not only very stylish but also very good piece of cinema. Its main theme, based on the song “Gael” by Scottish musician Dougie MacLean, unsurprisingly became one of the most recognisable pieces of film music in 1990s. In the end, even those who otherwise care little about epics about distant history, would probably appreciate The Last of the Mohicans as an “larger-than-life” film that they don’t make any more.

RATING: 7/10 (++)

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