An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
PUBLISHED: 15:51 26 September 2017
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
The Last of the Mohicans dir: Michael Mann; starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi, Jodhi May, Steven Waddington, Pete Postlethwaite. Cert: 15. (1992)
Not so much a western as an eastern, The Last of the Mohicans is set in the forests of the east coast of America before the War of Independence. This romantic action-adventure manages to be both an edge-of-your-seat action film and a fairly accurate history lesson which chronicles the demise of British rule as well as how the native tribes were either exterminated or driven west.
The action and the historical commentary are seamlessly woven together by cinematic magician Michael Mann, the filmmaker who later went onto bring Robert de Niro and Al Pacino together for a head to head performance in Heat.
After years of producing bright, loud, music-video-like TV, here was a film which was brooding, thoughtful and punctuated with gasp-inducing action scenes.
The film follows Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), the adopted white son of a Mohawk chief, who finds himself in the middle of a war between British and French forces and a blood feud with the Huron’s tribal war chief Magua (Wes Studi).
There are echoes between the conflicts between the French and the English and the Mohawks and the Hurons. If these dual conflicts weren’t enough Hawkeye finds himself having to protect Cora and Alice Munro (Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May), the daughters of a British colonel.
As war breaks out, the trio find themselves alone in the back woods and Hawkeye has to get them to safety as they are being hunted by Magua and his Huron warriors.
Mann manages to combine a brilliant combination of atmospheric forested landscapes, punctuated with shafts of sunlight, to which he adds some explosive action scenes. It should come as no surprise that Daniel Day Lewis, sporting a mane of wild, unkempt hair, lives and breathes the role of the European born, native American adopted by Mohican Chingachgook.
Happily, this is no studious history lesson because as any good storyteller knows, you need romance and jeopardy. Day Lewis finds a perfect love interest in Madeline Stowe’s Cora Munro. Newly arrived in the Colonies, Cora and her younger sister Alice (Jodhi May) are rescued from a Huron war party by Hawkeye, his brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) and Chingachgook, who hear their screams from a camp in the woods nearby.
The ambush scene is fantastic. It’s an orchestrated mix of physical stunts, ambitious camerawork and immersive sound design. The violence is shocking in its brutality but there are no gratuitous lingering shots – it’s the cinematic equivalent of being punched between the eyes.
Michael Mann cleverly leads you into the melee. There is a war cry and an eruption from the forest followed by the occasional crack of gunfire, which steadily builds into an overpowering thunderclap as both sides unleash their weapons.
The visuals throughout the film are matched by a haunting score by Randy Edelman, along with the Irish band Clannad who give the misty forest landscapes a timeless, ethereal quality.
For those who know the James Fenimore Cooper novel this film has a much more modern, understanding approach to the native American tribes.
They are no longer portrayed as blood-thirsty savages, as they are in the book, but are given a culture and sense of being – which makes the knowledge that their lives and their lands will soon be taken from them much more tragic.
The greatest testament to Michael Mann’s reworking of the story is that the film’s villain Magua is allowed to be an individual bad guy, his whole race is not painted with the same brush, even though they are a war-like nation.
At this moment you realise that there has to be a reckoning and it just so happens that Hawkeye is a upright frontiersman who takes his obligations seriously – particularly when he has a score to settle.
The Last of the Mohicans is a modern film which honours its roots in literature and history but is not slavishly indebted to them. It’s a movie which is about storytelling and about entertaining its audience and giving them a tale that perhaps they haven’t seen before. Who could ask for anything more?