The Last of the Mohicans
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Military drumbeats pound against a dark screen. In archaic type the date appears: 1757. Next follow the words:
“The American colonies.
“It is the 3rd year of the war between England and France for the possession of the continent.
“Three men, the last of a vanishing people, are on the frontier west of the Hudson River.”
Cut to misty mountains, appearing open and free, majestic and untamed. The film is Michael Mann's 1992 The Last of the Mohicans, a loose remake of the 1936 film of the same name and based, also loosely, on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper. This movie won no Oscars and attracted no particular critical acclaim. It did well at the box office but was no blockbuster. It is, nonetheless, an outstanding motion picture.
The Last of the Mohicans is among the best movies ever made about the American Revolution. Of course, it’s not literally about the Revolution at all, because the action occurs two decades before that event. But in its ideas, motifs, and conflicts, it portrays the birth of America.
The film is set on the frontier. It is awe-inspiring to think that the frontier was ever just west of the Hudson River, and it is more awe-inspiring to think about the men and women who pushed that frontier west across a whole continent. (Keeping in mind that there already many people living beyond that "frontier.") The frontier is often taken as a symbol of early America. Sometimes it is thought that it symbolizes expansiveness and a freedom to roam, and that is true. But it also symbolizes man’s contact with nature, and, in early America, it was nature that European settlers primarily dealt with.
The “natural man” is represented by Nathaniel Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis). Nathaniel represents the perfect fusion of European and Indian, civilized but with a wild edge. His adoptive family is Mohican, and he and his adoptive father and brother hunt and trap for a living. Nathaniel is literate and does use one obvious tool of civilization: the long rifle, with which he is expert.
His independence of character can be summed up in an exchange during which a British recruiting officer hectors a crowd of colonials to join up and fight the French. Nathaniel calls out, “You do what you want with your own scalp, and not be telling us what to do with ours.”
The officer, indignant, shouts, “You call yourself a patriot and a loyal subject of the crown?”
To which Nathaniel replies, “I do not call myself subject to much at all.”
People from the Old World, on the other hand, deal less with nature and more with other people and rigid institutions. This is captured in the film by the regimentation of the British soldiers and especially by the “good soldier” qualities of British Major Duncan Heyward, the primary foil to Nathaniel. In the period covered by the film, the British generally represent a kind of over-refined civilization, adorned with powdered wigs and superciliousness, out of touch with nature and the common people struggling to carve their living out of nature. The British are less than happy with their American subjects. A British general tells Major Heyward why he just negotiated the terms of service with the colonial militia. He says, “One has to reason with these colonials to get them to do anything.” This sums up the process by which the Americans are beginning to slip out from under British domination.
Another aspect of the film that is of interest is its action. I don’t mean the plot as such, which is good but not remarkable. I mean, literally, the action. The Last of the Mohicans is full of flights across the wilderness, gunfights, chases — as well as Indians, soldiers, forts, and all the other trappings of great Westerns. In fact, I've heard it said that James Fenimore Cooper invented the western. The Last of the Mohicans is an action movie, like virtually everything Michael Mann does, but it is an action movie of such fine distinction that its virtues bear mentioning.
First and foremost, all the action in Mohicans is imbued with significance. It is hard to care about car chases and explosions that are depicted seemingly for their own sake. All the action in Mann’s film is logically motivated and is performed by characters we can relate to and are concerned about. Even an opening deer hunt with Nathaniel and his family is meaningful because it introduces us to the skills and vigor of the characters and to their relationship with nature.
A second virtue is not a positive, but a negative. Mohicans lacks the insufferable quip. One questionable trait of the modern action movie, starting perhaps with James Bond, has been the use of the quip in a moment of violence. There is one quasi-example of this in Mohicans, but it is a particularly artful one, and not simply a tossed off line. After Nathaniel and his family rescue Duncan and the female characters from an Indian ambush, Duncan almost shoots Nathaniel’s brother. Nathaniel knocks his rifle aside and says, “In case you aim’s any better’n your judgment.” When I think of the tendency of modern action heroes to toss off quips with a kind of nonchalant bravado, I find myself appreciating that, in Mohicans, action is portrayed with moral seriousness.
Thirdly, the action in Mohicans is handled with appropriate emotion. Madeleine Stowe, as Cora Munro, Nathaniel’s love interest, beautifully portrays a transition from civilized composure to genuine passion. Even Nathaniel, who is rather stoical, shows emotion. At one point he has to walk away from dead friends without burying them and he looks as if he is about to cry. Later he has to shoot a dying man to put him out of his misery and the look on his face is one of horror, and a recognition of the enormity of what he has done.
The last aspect of the film I would like to comment on is that the characters are well-drawn and istically complex. There are no two-dimensional bad guys here. Duncan, although he is clearly limited, does have admirable qualities — e.g., he keeps his head under fire — and is quite capable of sacrificing for love. The Indian whose desire for revenge drives the action of the story is not a simplistic evil-doer, driven by pure malice: He informs us that his family was murdered and he was made a slave — surely reasons to want redress, even though this redress takes a barbaric form.
There are other aspects of the film worthy of praise. The cinematography is bold and beautiful and pulls us into the natural setting. The music is stirring with its mix of classical and folk elements. The period trappings seem flawless.
But as a film portraying some of the most important themes of America's beginnings — energy, engagement with the frontier, a close connection with nature, and a passionate independence of spirit — The Last of the Mohicans shines. It is truly an American classic.