R | 1h 52min | Action, Adventure, Drama | 1992
Filmmakers who attempt to make historical dramas have to walk a careful tightrope when attempting to appeal to a mass audience. On one hand, if they focus on too much historical accuracy, the action can become bogged down to the extent that you feel like you’re watching a rather dry documentary. And on the other hand, if they play a little too fast and loose with historical accuracy, their projects won’t be taken seriously.
Based on an 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper and directed by Michael Mann, 1992’s “The Last of the Mohicans” not only successfully traverses the aforementioned tightrope, it does so with self-confident assurance.
This is a bold, visionary film the likes of which one sees only once in a while. Although Cooper’s book has been adapted for the big screen numerous times, this version has the most historically accurate feel to it, and it features some gorgeous outdoor photography and a highly memorable score to boot.
The film is set in 1757, during the onset of the French and Indian War (1754–1763). The British and French are viciously vying for control of eastern North America, and both countries utilize Native Americans to bolster their armies. While the Mohican tribe is allied with the British, the Hurons side with the French.
The film opens up on a cozy settlement on the frontiers of upstate New York owned by the Cameron family of settlers. We are introduced to the main characters: Mohican trappers Chingachgook (Russell Means), his blood son Uncas (Eric Schweig), and his adopted white son Nathaniel (Daniel Day-Lewis), who typically goes by “Hawkeye” due to his uncanny accuracy with rifles.
The scene soon switches to a British outpost (also in upstate New York), where Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) is being ordered by his superior General Webb (Mac Andrews) to escort Cora and Alice Munro (Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May, respectively) to their father, Colonel Edmund Munro (Maurice Roëves).
Col. Munro is the garrison commander of Fort William Henry in the Adirondack Mountains. Before they leave, Heyward gets pushy with Cora about marriage and she tells him that she needs more time to decide.
Webb assigns a Native American guide named Magua (Wes Studi), whom he assumes is one of the friendly Mohawks, to guide Heyward, Cora, and Alice. Along with a detachment of British soldiers, they set out for Ft. William Henry. But as they ride by horseback through deep woods, Magua sneak attacks some of the British soldiers from the rear, and a group of Hurons ambush the party and slay all but Heyward, Cora, and Alice. It turns out that Magua is actually an undercover Huron.
Fortunately for the survivors, help arrives: Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas appear on the scene and take out all of the Hurons, except for the dastardly Magua, who disappears into the forest.
Although resistant to the idea of accepting help from their saviors, Heyward reluctantly agrees to let the trio escort them to the fort. Along the way, Heyward arrogantly assumes that Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas are scouts loyal to the Brits, to which Hawkeye responds, “I ain’t your scout and I sure ain’t no damn militia.”
Some attraction begins to develop between Hawkeye and Cora, as well as between Uncas and Alice. Thus, Cora starts walking right next to Hawkeye instead of Heyward, with the latter understandably becoming jealous. But they all have something much more serious to worry about when they finally arrive at the fort and discover that things aren’t as they’d assumed.
This masterpiece of cinema has aged very well over the past few decades. The performances by its cast are utterly convincing and do a great job of drawing you into the action.
Day-Lewis is brilliant as ever, playing a man caught between two worlds: one of “civilization,” and the other related to ancient Native American ways. Stowe is also superb as a woman bred and raised in a proper British setting, yet who begins to gradually open up to other ways of living through her contact with Hawkeye and his adoptive family.
The score is also hauntingly beautiful (developed by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman). It’s the kind that pairs so well with the incredible scenery (the film was shot in North Carolina), that it elevates an already excellent film to something sublime. Believe me, you will remember the score long after watching the ending credits roll. I caught myself unconsciously humming it on numerous occasions and laughed at myself.
Due to Mann’s incredible visionary genius, “The Last of the Mohicans” is a stunning epic film that combines visceral action, nuanced romance, and gripping drama. It has quickly managed to climb into my top 15 films of all time. Watch it, if you haven’t already, and you’ll see why.
‘The Last of the Mohicans’
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 22, 1992
Rated: 5 stars out of 5