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James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans, a frontier adventure set in the Adirondacks in 1757, was one of the most popular books of its day. A century later, it remained a popular tale with Hollywood, first turned into a film in 1911 and remade in numerous incarnations for both the big screen and the small screen. Michael Mann's 1992 film version is as much based on the 1936 version scripted by Philip Dunne and starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye, the white man adopted and raised by a Mohican father, as it is on Cooper's original novel, but it's also reflective of its director and its time. Daniel Day Lewis plays a different kind of Hawkeye: rugged and wild with long flowing hair, a proto-counter culture son of mother nature in buckskin, living off the land with his father Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother Uncas (Eric Schweig). They live in harmony with the white settlers of the wilderness, men and families who have left the transplanted European society of the cities to carve out lives of independence. But while they have distanced themselves from the European struggles for power and control, the war comes to them as the French and the British both lay claim to the lands of the New World.
Hawkeye and Uncas have no investment in this battle ("I ain't your scout and I sure ain't in no damn militia," challenges Hawkeye when a British officer attempts to recruit settlers) until they fall in love with the daughters of Colonel Munro, the British commander of a fort under siege by the French. The younger Uncas is entranced by Alice (Jodhi May) while Hawkeye clashes with the strong-willed beauty Cora (Madeleine Stowe), a striking English Rose in the New World. With skin like porcelain and the poise of a lady, Stowe offers a Cora whose initial shock at the brutality in this wilderness is replaced by awe and excitement even as the frontier becomes deadly. Her initial British patriotism gives way to respect for the settlers and passion for Hawkeye and the honesty of his life, especially when contrasted with Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington), the proper British officer who places patriotism and class allegiance over truth and justice. The seeds of American identity are sown as the British break their contract with the members of the local militia, privileging rank and power and duty to the crown's political interest over the protection of the settlers on the frontier whose homesteads are vulnerable to the war parties backed by the French. It's "tyranny," proclaims one settler, a term that resonates in the birth of the American Revolution.
Though set twenty years before the declaration of independence, Mann offers a portrait of a country and a people who have already redefined themselves. The British march in with notions of duty and ritual and authority that have no place in the wilderness, and ideas of warfare out of touch with the realities of this world. The early scenes of British society in the American landscape have a carefully composed beauty that recalls Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) with scenes that resemble formal paintings. Once Heyward heads into the untamed wilderness with Cora and Alice, the red uniforms and formal training of his troops are glaringly at odds with the primal Eden. Hawkeye and his brother, by contrast, move through the forest like they are one with it.
The Last of the Mohicans was an unexpected project for Mann. His previous films had all been resolutely urban and focused on professionals on both sides of the law squaring off against one another. Hawkeye and Uncas flee society to live in the wilderness but like Mann's traditional heroes, they are the best at what they do and only beholden to their family. The most characteristically "Mann" moment of the film observes their careful preparations to give cover to a courier running for help - the fluid movements of the wordless routine as they hand off spent rifles and take aim with a new weapon, and the precision of their shots with the single-shot muzzle-load rifles (which Hawkeye packs with silk to give him greater distance). The lanky Day-Lewis underwent a rigorous schedule of fitness training to build muscle and a six month study of wilderness skills, from tracking animals and building canoes to fighting with tomahawks and loading and firing a flintlock on the run, to prepare for the role. But where the heroes of Mann's crime dramas sacrifice personal lives to professionalism, the lives and allegiances of Hawkeye and Uncas change when they fall in love with the two Duncan girls. Theirs is a romantic story and this is Mann's most deliriously romantic movie.
Though set in upstate New York, Mann took his production to Western North Carolina and the Appalachian mountains of Alabama to find the dense wilds and rugged wilderness the film called for. Longtime Mann cinematographer Dante Spinotti captures this like a vivid nature study with an impressionist perspective and realist detail (Spinotti earned a BAFTA, the British equivalent to an Oscar®, for his cinematography). The production called for over a thousand extras, including hundreds of Indian roles which Mann cast with Native Americans, largely Iroquois. Indian rights activist Russell Means made his screen debut as Chingachgook, a small part but a central role that demanded a strong presence. Eric Schweig, a Canadian-born actor of Inuit descent with a few roles to his credit, was cast as the quiet but athletic young Uncus, younger brother to Hawkeye. And Wes Studi, a Cherokee who had memorably played the silent American Indian in Oliver Stone's The Doors (1991), launched a very successful career with his performance as the vengeful Magua. He subsequently went on to play the title role in Geronimo: American Legend (1993) and a central character in Mann's 1995 crime thriller Heat, among his many roles.
The Last of the Mohicans was made in the wake of Dances with Wolves (1990) and, like that Oscar®-winning film, it's a portrait of a culture that is being displaced by a new society coming in and taking over the land. But while the title of the film refers to Chingachgook, the last Chief of the Mohican tribe, and his blood son Uncas, the last full-blooded Mohican, the story of Uncas and his romance with Alice (which is the focus of the 1920 silent version) is left to the margins of this film. This story is about the white man adopted into the native way of life. It's also a portrait of a short-lived time of peaceful coexistence between the early American settlers and the Native Americans, at least until the armies from the European powers march in to stake their political claim to the land and stir up local Indian tribes to join in their war. The Last of the Mohicans mourns that ideal even as it celebrates the union of Hawkeye and Cora, the strong, rugged and distinctly American couple who will define the new Americans as the country is being born.
Producer: Hunt Lowry, Michael Mann
Director: Michael Mann
Screenplay: Michael Mann, Christopher Crowe (both screenplay); Philip Dunne (1936 screenplay); John L. Balderston, Paul Perez, Daniel Moore (all adaptation); James Fenimore Cooper (novel)
Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Art Direction: Robert Guerra, Richard Holland
Music: Randy Edelman, Trevor Jones
Film Editing: Dov Hoenig, Arthur Schmidt
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Hawkeye (Nathaniel Poe)), Madeleine Stowe (Cora Munro), Russell Means (Chingachgook), Eric Schweig (Uncas), Jodhi May (Alice Munro), Steven Waddington (Maj. Duncan Heyward), Wes Studi (Magua), Maurice Roves (Col. Edmund Munro), Patrice Chreau (Gen Montcalm), Edward Blatchford (Jack Winthrop).
C-112m. Letterboxed. Descriptive Video.
by Sean Axmaker