by Mark Goldstein
One of the major down-sides of major downsides of attempting to work our way through American history chronologically is that not every historical period has films that are… well… good. While many of the films we are viewing for this blog might be classified as “epics” simply on the basis of their scopes, their cinematography and their run-times. With that said, none of the movies we have reviewed so thus far can rightfully be called “classics.” For example, 1492: Conquest of Paradise was a long-running slog that was as difficult to watch from a cinematic perspective as a historical perspective, but it was one of the few films about that time period that even exists.When it comes to films about the French and Indian War however, there was one movie that was on the list of almost every list of recommendations that we received: Michael Mann’s iconic 1992 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
The Last of the Mohicans boasts a star-studded cast including a young Daniel-Day Louis as Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe, a British colonist raised by a Mohican Indian named Chingachgook, with whom he lives on the frontier making a living as a fur trapper. Set in the 1757 in the middle of the French and Indian War, the film begins with British Army Major Duncan Heyward (Stephen Waddington) being asked to escort Cora and Alice, the daughters of British colonel Edmund Munro to Ft. William Henry from Albany. Their Indian guide, the villainous Magua (Wes Studi), leads the travelers into an ambush by the Huron Indians, who are allying themselves with French forces. Chingachgook, Hawkeye and his adoptive brother Uncas rescue the travelers, and Hawkeye develops a romance with Cora, while the same happens between Uncas and Alice. The travelers make it to their destination only to find it under siege by French forces.
After Hawkeye helps frontier militiamen desert their posts so they could defend their homes from attack, colonel Munro sentences Hawkeye for sedition. Munro is forced to surrender peacefully to the French without his reinforcements, which angers Magua who hoped to personally kill Munro and his daughters to settle a personal grudge. Magua decides to take matters into his own hands when he leads an attack against the surrendering Brits, and personally rips Colonel Munro’s heart from his chest for good measure. Hawkeye and his friends are tasked with keeping their love interests safe from Magua and the Hurons.
Numerous adaptations have been made of this story over the decades, but Mann’s absolutely stands the test of time. Italian Dante Spinotti’s sweeping cinematography (mostly filmed in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains) is absolutely stunning; with one standout moment including an epic fight literally fought in the inside of a waterfall. Composer Trevor Jones weaves together an iconic score, although the central theme music of the film was Scottish singer Dougie MacClean’s 1990 song The Gael. Costumes and sets were definitely designed with historical detail in mind.
The Last of the Mohicans benefits from a well-crafted script that manages to pack a compelling epic into a film while keeping the run-time under two hours, a feat many directors of historical epics are unable to accomplish. It also benefits from strong performances from its lead actors, with Lewis performing extensive character research for the role (including learning how to build canoes and live off the land). The romance between Lewis and Madeleine Stowe’s Cora Munroe feels very dynamic and fully fleshed-out. Waddington’s performance as the ambitious and jealous Heyward is also noteworthy, and played with a great deal of nuance. Credit should also be given to the film for casting indigineous actors in major roles, with Chingachgook portrayed by Lakota activist Rusell Means. Wes Studi’s portrayal of antagonist Magua felt a little over-the-top at times, with the decision to have the character speak of himself solely in the third-person an annoying and unnecessary character choice. With that said, Studi brings real passion and energy to the role.
While The Last of the Mohicans is not at all an accurate portrayal of the French and Indian war, it is certainly a thrilling two-hours of cinema. Michael Mann crafts together a thrilling and historical romance complete with sweeping cinematography, a memorable score, an all-star cast, and plenty of action. Of all of the films we have watched so far during this project, Mohicans is the first that I could consider to be a cinematic classic.
Rating: 46/50 Stars