‘The Last of the Mohicans’ – ’92 Cinema Revue

The Last of the Mohicans – #1 in the U.S. (Sept. 25-27)

All-Time Domestic & Worldwide $75,505,856

The Last of the Mohicans is a great remake of an adaptation with Mann going against the grain, powered by performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Wes Studi.

Film bros love Michael Mann, as evident by “Film Twitter.” There is not a week where Heat or Thief doesn’t get a mention as one of the best films. Mann is in the good graces of cinephiles. Same with Daniel Day-Lewis, known for his brand of method acting and three Academy Award wins. Who knew their forces once combined to bring about an adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans? Mann wanted to remake the 1936 film rather than the novel by James Fenimore Cooper. While both are credited, 1992’s adaptation hinges closer to 1936’s adaptation, a version I haven’t seen since middle school. Now in the vagueness of my memory, I remember that version being pretty to look at if a tad boring (Then again, I was 12 when I last watched it). But, great timing for this release as westerns were coming back into fashion, most of the revisionist variety thanks to the acclaim of Dances of WolvesUnforgiven being a recent hit also helped matters.

It’s the midst of the French and Indian War as Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) must escort two daughters of a colonel to Fort William Henry, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice Munro (Jodhi May). While being escorted by Mohawk tribe member Magua (Wes Studi), he calls upon the Huron to attack and betray them, being of the Huron and allying with the French. The Mohicans arrive with Nathaniel (Daniel Day-Lewis), an adopted white son of Chingachgook (Russell Means), and brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) to help the attack. Heyward creates an unlikely alliance with the Mohicans to provide safe passage to the fort. Cora and Nathaniel begin to grow closer, much to the chagrin of Heyward. However, as Magua and the French make their approach, the newfound alliance must do their best to survive.

Of the modern revisionist westerns, The Last of the Mohicans ranks high in the pantheon. Day-Lewis was always selective about his roles, diving deep into them. This role is no exception doing his “method acting” (he is one of the few who can run and load a musket), having this confidence but feeling honed in on. When it comes to being alongside Stowe in scenes, their chemistry is undeniable, with honesty to his words and a trustful aura. Seeing him go into a more action-filled hero role is also unexpected, having a believable physical prowess and not having to rely on cheesy one-liners. Nathaniel is a realistic everyman and not the invincible hero that has become passe in film at this point.

Magua (Wes Studi) prepares to fight Chingachgook (Russell Means) as he seeks to avenge the death of his son.
Source: 20th Century Studios

Every great hero also has a great foil. Studi as Magua is a magnificent villain. He is cold and callous in his actions but intelligent in his negotiations and betrayal. He has been corrupted in his mindset, thinking he is doing what is suitable for Huron, but the reality is he is only out for himself. His line, “I will let the grey hair know that I will put a knife under their children, so they will know that their see will be wiped off Earth forever,” is terrifying. Magua does have his reasonings, though. British soldiers killed his family, a detail that is alluded to in the movie but is a part of the original novel. Magua means business and will do anything at any cost. It’s upsetting that Studi did not receive more award recognition for his role. Luckily, he will receive an Honorary Oscar years later. Studi is also one of my favorite actors to see pop up in films and TV, including in FX’s Reservation Dogs, which is an absolute treat.

As for the direction and cinematography, this movie is beautiful to see and look at to a fault. Mann has fantastic direction in setting up the scenes and showing the brutality of war and battle, especially in the fight with the Huron toward the end. It does not shy away from seeing the violence on display which captures how brutal it was at the time. The film’s finale with Chingachgook and Magua is one of the most delicate pieces of the fort battle, showing only flames, cannon fire, and the fort in full glory. There are also very romantic shots of Nathaniel and Cora that only romance novel covers wished they had on display. It’s very dynamic and harkens to the old romances found in epics of the 30s and 40s. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti came out of the gate swinging and would reteam with Mann for Heat.

Nathaniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Cora (Madeliene Stowe) embrace the beauty of a sunrise.
Source: 20th Century Studios

The fault comes from how the movie does not have a proper remaster. As a result, many shadows, which benefit some night scenes, such as the fort battle mentioned, can be too dark with only a glimmer of light on the actor’s faces. That is not the fault of the movie, but the fact that the only version available is a definitive director’s cut that, while it has a Blu-Ray release, is only an upscale of the DVD version. I am willing to bet that if this found a proper restoration through a boutique media house or with the help of Disney, as they now own this film, it would look magnificent and garner a newer audience. 

Viewers could also argue how this film only adds to the pile of “white savior” films like Dances With Wolves or The Last Samurai. The focus is squarely on the white adopted son of a Mohican rather than Chingachgook, the actual titular Last of the Mohicans. He was a character who loomed large in many of Cooper’s works and has the best arc in the film resulting in Magua’s ultimate demise. Focusing on Nathaniel takes away from Chingachgook’s struggles and his loss of a son. It would have been better to give him more to do than a few words. His last words in the film resonate, adding significance to the story and the title, but he needed more to do. The Last of the Mohicans is the best of the bunch, though ensuring the portrayal of Native Americans is not discriminatory or fodder. That is appreciated, as it could have been much worse, given past depictions. 

Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis) jumps into the heat of battle.
Source: 20th Century Studios

The Last of the Mohicans is a great remake of an adaptation with Mann going against his known grain powered by dynamic performances from Day-Lewis and Studi. It holds up great years later as a marvel of the western revival, even if you might have to turn up the brightness on your television.

Revue Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Next time, October begins not with the shocking tale of a man with a DUI leading a group of kids through true terror: ice hockey. Get in a Flying V formation for The Mighty Ducks.

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