Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Classic Throwback: The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992)

Today I thought I would dedicate my Classic Throwback post to a film I consistently find to be a rousing, exciting and moving experience. That film is Michael Mann's soaring historical epic from 1992, The Last of the Mohicans. Set amidst a rich, turbulent and authentically recreated era of United States colonization and warfare, Mann has endowed the film with a number of thrilling and intense combat sequences, an inspiring and believable romance and a grand sense of adventure. It is also a great story. 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 Mohicans stands alongside Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven as one of the finest adventure epics of the decade. The film is based on the James Fenimore Cooper novel, though I believe it more closely resembles George B. Seitz's 1936 film adaptation (which I haven't seen) than the source novel.

In 1757, the British and French are battling for control of North America in the French and Indian War. Though the colonists are bound by law to join the militia to aid the British, many of them are reluctant to leave their homes and families defenceless. A Mohican elder Chingachgook (Russell Means), his son Uncas (Eric Schweig) and Nathaniel (Daniel Day-Lewis), his adopted "white" son, choose to remain unaffiliated despite their local colonial friend, Jack Winthrop (Edward Blatchford), leading a platoon of volunteers to Fort William Henry. Cora Munroe (Madeleine Stowe) and her sister Alice (Jodhi May) are en-route to Fort William Henry to rendezvous with their father, the commander of the British garrison. A native guide named Magua (Wes Studi) and a detachment of British soldiers commanded by Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) escort the women. Magua, who has a bitter hatred for Colonel Munroe leads a Huron ambush on the party. Nathaniel and his companions, who had been tracking the Hurons, rescue the women.

They escort Cora and Alice to Fort William Henry to find it under siege by the French, and along the way discover the homestead of their friends, the Camerons, razed by Hurons. Conflicts emerge when Nathaniel assists the colonial volunteers to leave the Fort to defend their homes and families. Cora, who, to the dismay of Major Heyward, has developed feelings for Nathaniel, defends him. But Nathaniel is arrested for sedition and ordered to hang. Following a British surrender to French troops, Nathaniel travels as a prisoner with the British survivors back to Albany, but they find themselves attacked on the road by Magua and the Hurons. An enthralling battle ensues and Nathaniel, Chingachgook and Uncas manage to escape with the women and a few other survivors into the wilderness. With the Hurons in hot pursuit, it is left to honour and sacrifice to ensure their survival.

There is an epic quality to this film that is all impressively squeezed into a concise running time (108 minutes) that rewards multiple viewings. The battle sequences are expertly staged, complex and not shy on the brutality. Mixing staged gunfire, with tomahawk melee attacks, the violence is sporadic, thrilling and genuinely exciting. Nathaniel is not an unbelievable fighting machine, but a hardened hunter who is fuelled by adrenalin and his growing fondness for Cora. Mann simultaneously builds a compelling lead character (assisted by another fantastic performance from Daniel Day-Lewis), creates a believable and passionate romance that never overwhelms the story (though is essential to the narrative) and expertly recreates this turbulent historical period.

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 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 Mohicans is scarred with painful death and loss. The heart-wrenching conclusion always leaves me with shivers. Truthfully, this is primarily due to the wonderful score, which I have decided is one of my favourites in film. A near-flawless film, I can highly recommend The Last of the Mohicans, which I think is Mann's finest film amidst his 1990's golden era, which would later include Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999).

My Rating: 5 Stars (A)


  1. One of the first films with Day-Lewis I saw. A real master-talent.

  2. This is a strong claim, but I believe he is the best actor currently working. He brings so much to each and every role. I haven't seen My Left Foot but I thought he was superb in Last of the Mohicans, In the Name of the Father, The Crucible, Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood (one of the greatest performances ever).