James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Last of the Mohicans” was first adapted for the big screen in 1912. Other versions of the story appeared at theaters in 1936 and 1963. But then in 1992 Michael Mann delivered not only the best version of the classic story but also one of the most well-crafted and cinematic period piece films you’ll find. Mann gives us a gritty frontier action picture placed in a beautiful yet worn-torn setting. But an equally strong component of the film is the passionate love story interwoven throughout the picture. It’s a romance that never feels tacked on or disingenuous. In fact, it fuels much of what drives the narrative all the way to its powerful final 10 minutes.
The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Nathaniel Hawkeye, adopted white son of Chingachgook (Russell Means). Joined by Uncas (Eric Schweig), Chingachgook’s only blood son, the three find themselves involved in The French and Indian War that they are desperately trying to avoid. After tracking a Huron war party the three rescue Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Joghi May) Munro, daughters of a British Colonel stationed at Fort William Henry. Realizing more Hurons will be coming, they agree to lead the daughters and Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) to the fort. From there relationships develop, jealousy and deception is revealed, and the horrors of a new kind of war take center stage.
The casting is proven good by some truly wonderful performances throughout the movie. Lewis is fantastic as Nathaniel and his onscreen chemistry with Stowe is quite good. Their romance feels genuine even though it feels a little hurried. Lewis is also good in the action sequences as is Schweig and Means. The action is beautifully shot and choreographed and the three actors have absolutely no trouble selling it. Also fun to watch is the great Wes Studi as Magua, a twisted Huron warrior who wants to kill as many “grey hairs” as possible. Everyone is good in the film and even the smaller performances ting with authenticity.
This film version isn’t ardently faithful to Cooper’s novel but in many ways it’s an improvement on it. Mann and co-writer Christopher Crowe put together an energetic and fast-paced adaptation. It ruggedly portrays the demanding and taxing frontier life and sharply contrasts that with the aristocratic, prim and proper attitudes of the English and French. It’s that monarchist arrogance and sense of entitlement that meets the sharp and violent reality of the frontier. It also doesn’t shy away from giving the action a gritty and sometimes bloody presentation. But with the exception of one particular scene, the violence never feels gratuitous. Instead it feels like an accurate representation of what that crude and sometimes brutal combat would be like.
I also have to mention how wonderful the movie looks. I mentioned how beautifully shot the action sequences are but the same could be said for the entire picture. Filmed in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the movie features so many scenes of natural beauty that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. The gorgeous locations mixed with Dante Spinotti’s stunning cinematography gives the setting an uncharted and untouched look. And it’s impossible not to be impressed by his clever camera angles and perfectly executed long shots that give so many scenes an undeniable cinematic flare.
And speaking of presentation, I have to mention the incredible score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman. Of all of the movie scores I have heard, and there are plenty of great ones out there, none has added as much to a film or effected me more that Jones’ and Edelman’s work here. From the percussion-driven music during the battle at Fort William Henry to the emotional period string arrangement playing during the finale, every note hits perfectly. But most importantly, the score adds to the mood and tone of almost every scene.
Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” is an example of wonderful filmmaking from title to credits. Some may not respond as strongly to its straightforward storytelling or its occasionally intense violence. But I love it’s fast and fluid pacing, realistic frontier depiction, and heartfelt romance. The performances are great throughout led by more strong work Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s also a technical achievement featuring stunning visuals, remarkable sound, and a soundtrack that still moves me to this day. This is a unique historical period film that has a feel all its own. It won me over when I first saw it in the theater in 1992 and it’s one of the few movies that I can watch again today anytime or anywhere.
VERDICT – 5 STARS