Michael Mann’s soaring historical/romance epic from 1992, The Last of the Mohicans, is a film I consistently find to be a rousing, exciting and moving experience. Set amidst a rich, turbulent and authentically recreated era of United States colonization and warfare at the height of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), a conflict between British America and New France.
Mann has endowed his film with a number of thrilling and intense combat sequences, an inspiring and believable romance and a grand sense of adventure. It is a love story and a war film. With excellent performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, and featuring stunning cinematography and an Academy Award winning score from Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, The Last of the Mohicansis one of the decade’s finest epics. Based on the James Fenimore Cooper novel (1826), though I believe it closely resembles George B. Seitz’s 1936 film adaptation.
Daniel Day Lewis ALWAYS delivers a memorable performance, but his transformation into the dashing, charismatic and heroic Nathaniel is one of his best. Physically it is a challenging role, but DDL is clearly committed and displays grace when dispatching his enemies. But he has some nice subtle reactionary moments too and his chemistry with Stowe is convincing. He somehow manages, as a primitive forest dweller, and an alien in comparison to Cora’s corseted upper class society, to ignite not only her passions but also her compassion. There is some great support from Wes Studi (a devilish villain), Steven Waddington (Cora’s smug, priggish Red Coat suitor), and Jodhi May (Cora’s angelic younger sister, Alice).
Mann, perhaps best known for his crime thrillers (Heat, Collateral and Miami Vice), has done a remarkable job recreating this turbulent historical period. He not only builds compelling characters we emotionally attach to, but he establishes a myriad of conflicts and creates a believable and passionate romance that never overwhelms the story (though it proves essential to the narrative). Mann has been an innovator with the digital camera in recent years, to varying degrees of success, but this is undeniably his most stunning feature. It is sensationalist filmmaking at its finest.
There is an epic quality to this film that is all impressively squeezed into a very concise running time (108 minutes). The conflicts and rivalries are genuine, the motives of the villains acceptable, and the heroics earned. While the battle sequences prove to be the most appealing feature, it has equal concerns for the adventure, and the scope of the film is what makes it memorable. Throughout the journey we are taken to a number of different locations around Northern America and Lake George, including Albany, Fort William Henry, Huron land and the beautiful natural surrounding wilderness. With Nathaniel at the centre, his comrades in tow, their story takes them across the rugged, war-torn and politically divided American landscape. What makes it so engaging is the fact that the primitive intelligence and warrior skill of Nathaniel, Chingachgook and Uncas is matched by Magua and the war party, and the plot of The Last of the Mohicansis scarred with painful death and loss. The conclusion always leaves me with shivers.
The battle sequences are complex and expertly staged, and not shy on the brutality. Mixing staged gunfire, with tomahawk melee attacks, the violence is sporadic and thrilling. Nathaniel is not an unbelievable fighting machine, but a hardened hunter who is fuelled by his desire to honour his fallen comrades, make his Mohican kin proud and protect the woman he has fallen in love with.
Take my word for it, Last of the Mohicans features one of the greatest film scores you will ever have the pleasure of listening to. The magnificent climactic crescendo is especially beautiful.
Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22