Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” is a better Romance and Adventure film than it is a period War Movie, which it seems to be at first glance. Based on a novel by James Fenimore Cooper, the movie tells the epic tale of Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), a white man raised by a clan of Native Americans called the Mohicans. But the Mohicans hasn’t had the best time of it, and as result there’s only 3 of them left: Hawkeye, his adopted father Chingachgook (Russell Means), and his adopted brother Uncas (Eric Schweig).
The film is set in the untamed American frontier during the British-French Wars of early 18th century, with both sides fighting for control of the newly discovered American continent. Native Indians and colonists have been forced to pick sides, but Hawkeye and others have refused to join in, believing that the war has nothing to do with them. Things change when Hawkeye crosses path with English aristocrat Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) and her sister Alice (Jodhi May), as the women are being escorted by the rigid Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) to their father at the front lines.
After saving the women and Heyward from a bloody ambush engineered by the vengeful Magua (Wes Studi), Hawkeye reluctantly agrees to escort them to an English fort currently besieged by French forces. Once at the fort, Hawkeye’s reluctance to join the war proves correct, as the British doesn’t seem particularly concern about the well being of the colonists fighting for them.
Despite its many good points and director Michael Mann’s grand painting of the untouched cinematic American frontier, “Mohicans” is still a better Romance-Adventure picture than it is an action or even a War movie. Which isn’t to say the movie is devoid of combat, because it isn’t. There are numerous scenes of military engagement, mostly at the aforementioned siege of the English fort. Cannon fire and exploding muskets light up the nighttime scenes, making the film an experience to watch.
The cinematography by Dante Spinotti (“Red Dragon”) is extraordinary, and the film’s many scenes in the ancient woods of Colonial America are ripe with beauty and majesty. The acting is also superb, which is a very good thing because the screenplay by Mann and Christopher Crowe is sometimes too clunky for its own good, with a lot of romantic language that’s better left to, well, romance novels. Which isn’t to say I don’t think people really talk like this back then, but it just sounds very awkward to my contemporary ears.
Thankfully the movie has a fine cast that manages to sell even the clunky dialogue. Daniel Day-Lewis (“Gangs of New York”) turns in a solid performance as Hawkeye, a man caught between two worlds. Madeleine Stowe (“We Were Soldiers”), who has been under appreciated throughout her career, convinces us of the blossoming romance between her Cora and Hawkeye. The fact is, the screenplay handles their scenes so unnaturally that it takes actors of their caliber to sell it. In lesser hands, their romance would never work, and may very well have come across as completely ridiculous.
For the most part the direction by Michael Mann (“Ali”) is superb, although he seems to have some trouble with the movie’s more brutal battle scenes. On more than one occasion the film has a choppy feel, as if whole chunks of frames were removed. And despite being R-Rated, the film is surprisingly bloodless. While a terrific Romance and Adventure film, “Mohicans” it’s a minor War movie, and I wouldn’t even call it a minor “The Patriot”, the bloody Revolutionary War movie with Mel Gibson.
Another aspect of “Mohicans” that works is the naturalistic soundtrack. There is a constant string instrument complimented by a beating drum that plays throughout much of the exciting forest scenes, including the movie’s final, climactic running battle between the Mohicans and a small band of marauders led by Wes Studi. The film is most exciting in small bursts, when Mann doesn’t allow us to linger on what’s wrong or missing, but keeps giving us what’s right, which is the burgeoning love story between Cora and Hawkeye.
An underrated and forgotten gem, “The Last of the Mohicans” deserve a better fate. It is epic, great to look at, and Madeleine Stowe is almost as gorgeous as the scenery. What more could you ask for?
Michael Mann (director) / Michael Mann (screenplay)
CAST: Daniel Day-Lewis …. Hawkeye
Madeleine Stowe …. Cora Munro
Russell Means …. Chingachgook
Eric Schweig …. Uncas
Jodhi May …. Alice Munro
Wes Studi …. Magua