Michael Mann gets epic in this elegiac war drama starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Oscar gives it another look.
Who made it?: Michael Mann (Director/Co-Writer/Co-Producer), Christopher Crowe (Co-Writer), Hunt Lowry (Co-Producer), Morgan Creek Productions.
Who’s in it?: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Jodhi May, Steven Waddington, Wes Studi.
Tagline: “The First American Hero.”
IMDb rating: 7.8/10.
The Last of the Mohicans is both a fascinating and heavy-hitting film; it was an example of an epic war picture cut from the same cloth as Braveheart and Gladiator, and quite likely inspired those, too. This film has a bit of everything, including action, romance, warfare, and passionate drama. The director, Michael Mann, tells the story at a slick pace and shatters any idealisation of life on the frontier amidst the Indian tribes, culminating in the demise of a noble breed of Native American warriors.
During the French and Indian War in 1757, Mohican Chingachgook (Russell Means) with his sons, Uncas (Eric Schweig) and adopted white Nathaniel Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), visit the Cameron frontier household. They learn that the British army is gathering militia for the war with the French. General Webb agrees to grant the militia leave if their homes are attacked in return for their reinforcement at Fort William Henry. Newly-arrived Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) and the Huron guide Magua (Wes Studi) are to escort General Munro’s daughters, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May), to the fort. Magua leads the group into an ambush by his Huron party, but Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachgook save Duncan, Cora and Alice and escort them to the fort. After finding the Cameron homestead in disarray and their friends killed, the group arrive at the fort which is under siege by the French. It can only hold for three more days, so a messenger is sent to General Webb for help. Cora and Hawkeye have become attracted to one another much to the jealousy of Duncan. Hawkeye maintains that the Huron are fighting with the French and are responsible for destroying the Cameron homestead, but Duncan claims that it was done by thieves to spite Hawkeye. Munro believes that the defence of the fort is more important and refuses to let the militia leave to defend their homes and families. Hawkeye helps the militia desert and is arrested for sedition and sentenced to hang, despite Cora’s pleas.
French General Montcalm (Patrice Chéreau) generously offers all in the fort safe passage to Albany if they surrender and vow to never fight in North America. Munro reluctantly accepts after Montcalm shows Webb’s intercepted message, showing that no aid is forthcoming. Magua berates Montcalm for making peace, revealing that his village was destroyed and his children killed by Munro’s troops, assisted by the Mohawk, yet Montcalm intends to honour his end of the bargain, whilst giving Magua dispensation to act on his own volition. As a result, the retreating British soldiers and their families are ambushed by Magua’s men. Hawkeye, Cora, Alice, Uncas, Chingachgook, and Duncan flee in canoes across Lake George and down a river to a cave behind a waterfall, but Magua and his men are soon upon them. For their safety, Hawkeye urges Cora and Alice to submit if captured and promises he will find them later. Magua takes Duncan and the two sisters to a Huron village, where their fates are to be judged by the sachem.
The cast match their characters flawlessly, and the performances raise the movie up. Day-Lewis as Hawkeye is a hardened and reserved frontiersman through and through, neither too savage nor too cultured, keeping his character subtle and believable. Waddington is both an earnest officer and a harsh foil to Hawkeye, giving the character a greater level of dimension despite his poor decisions, even having a worthy sacrifice towards the end. Means is majestic and venerable as Chingachgook, and Schweig plays Uncas with stoic valour. Stowe has many strong and emotional scenes with Day-Lewis and holds her own against British Officers with fiery fervour, but May is often forgettable as Alice, and the character herself doesn’t add much to the plot until the very end. Studi is a chilling presence as Magua, though, and as the film progresses we see more of his truly despicable qualities but retains a sense of honour and warrior’s pride.
The script by Christopher Crowe and director Mann is a smartly-written piece, setting the time and location without jarring modern influences. The theme of racial tension between the Native Americans and the Europeans permeates across the story, without demonising one side in favour of the other, showing that both had faults and how the actions of one corrupt man could destabilise any notion of peace. The British seal their own fate by breaking their deals with the natives, and the ripple effect it has on the characters. We see the decline of British rule to the shock of Hawkeye and his comrades, as well as the clemency of the French towards the English in surrender. The natives aren’t portrayed as victimised people; their warriors have an unbridled ferocity about them as well as a dignity seldom seen in Hollywood. Indeed, Magua is a great villain, compelled to hatred, bitterness and revenge for plausible reasons.
The action scenes are incredibly well-shot and edited, too, and skilfully depict the brutality and harshness of Colonial Era warfare, seeing men massacred in droves on both sides. While some may take issue with the love triangle between Hawkeye, Duncan and Cora, it’s kept rightfully understated thanks to the calibre of the actors and never overwhelms the story or the war setting. It is a touch Hollywood, but remains sensitive and earnest and never damages the seriousness of the story.
The score by Trevor Jones weaves majesty, tragedy and heroism in every beat, even underscoring the tender scenes between characters. The soundtrack makes famous use of “The Gael” by Scottish songwriter Dougie MacLean as the main theme, highlighting the climactic battle and the high emotions that follow. The strong cinematography captures the untamed wilderness of uncharted America as well as the sprawling battlefields, and coupled with the music, I feel truly transported to that far away time. We travel across the mysterious Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, its verdant forests covered in fog, and its roaring rapids and waterfalls giving off a strong primal element that seems far removed from modern America. The costume design is authentic and shows wear and tear where necessary, maintaining the film’s realistic tone; the Huron are designed according to history and manage to strike fear in the hearts of the British. Perhaps there is a more realistic portrayal of a Native American tribe in cinema, but I have yet to see it for myself.
The strength of the climax is in the courage of Hawkeye and his adopted Indian family, depicting a few standing against many. It’s a tragedy in the end but a smoothly executed one. Overall, The Last of the Mohicans manages to respect both sides of the Native/Settler conflict that dominated early American history, and the result is a beautifully told story that earns its place amongst Michael Mann’s best films, governed by a strong performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and an evocative score.
Mann proves his worth by staging a memorable battle.
- Daniel Day-Lewis is well-known for going to extremes in preparation for his roles. For this film he lived in the wilderness where his character might have lived, hunting and fishing and living off the land for several months prior to shooting.
- Many long nights were spent filming the siege scenes. Due to the expansive area involved, loudspeakers were installed around the battlefield and fort so directions could be easily given to the hundreds of cast and crew. One night after many long hours, Mann was heard to shout over the speakers, “What’s that orange light? Turn out that orange light!” After a pause another voice (an A.D.?) came over the speakers stating, “That’s the SUN, Michael.”
- By most accounts, there were on average at least twenty takes for each set-up. Such lengthy shootings (and the ensuing costs) would account for 20th Century Fox sending a Rep to do nothing except stand behind Mann and say, “That’s enough Michael, move on.”
- Hawkeye’s real name in the novel is Natty Bumppo, but was changed to Nathaniel Poe for the film to avoid titters from the audience.