The Last of the Mohicans (1992)


It’s often said that James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is a tale many are familiar with, but a novel only few have read. Significantly the script for Michael Mann’s 1992 screen adaptation owes more to the screenplay of the 1936 film adaptation starring Randolph Scott than to the source novel.

For those who do not know: The Last of the Mohicans is set during the so-called French and Indian war (1754-1963) when France and Britain battled for the control of the vast North American colonies. Both sides were supported by various native tribes (hence the name ‘Indian war’). 

The Last of the Mohicans is above all the story of Natty Bumppo, knicknamed Hawkeye, a white boy who was raised by Natives. He is unwilling to choose sides, but is drawn into the conflict when he saves the lives of two young women, Cora and Alice Munro, the daughters of the British officer responsible for the defence of Fort William Henry. After the successful siege of the fort by the French army, the Brits get a safe conduct, but Magua, the war chief of the of the Hurons, ambushes the column because he has sworn to kill the Munro sisters, because the Brits have raided his village and murdered his relatives. In the meantime Hawkey and Cora have fallen in love, while Chingachgook’s biological son Uncas starts developing feelings for Cora’s younger sister Alice.

Was there any need for a new version? Over the years we have become more tolerant towards screen violence and this offered director Mann the possibility of a more realistic approach of the source material. Most adaptations presented the story as an adventure movie with some action and romance, but The Last of the Mohicans is a period war movie and Mann’s version offers some of the bloodiest battle scenes ever put on film: attentive viewers will even spot the scalping of a British soldier. Mann used thousands of extras, among them 900 natives to give his film a more authentic look; Chingachgook is played by Russell Means, an Indian Rughts activist, while Uncas is played by Eric Schweig, a Canadian actor of Inuit desent. Furthermore Daniel Day-Lewis lived like a 18th Century trapper for weeks to prepare for the role of Hawkeye: he learned how to built canoes and skin deer.

All these shots at realism and authenticity have resulted in a breathtakingly beautiful movie. The battle scenes are furious, the camera spiraling its way between the warring factions, creating a thrilling idea of immediacy; the attack on the British army on its way to the safety of Ford Edward is a true awe-inspiring spectacle. And yet there’s something missing: Cooper’s source tale is rather generic and in spite of his efforts to become a believable 18th Century trapper, Daniel Day-Lewis' Hawkeye is no more than a figure running through the woods, long-haired, bare-chested - an admirable achievement, but the character has no depth. At the same time his physical presence is so dominant that his companions, his foster father Chincachgook and foster brother Uncas remain almost anonymous. Some of the supporting characters actually work better than the leads: Wes Studi is awfully convincing as the traitorous and bloodthirsty Magua and Johdi May has a remarkably insightful scene during the finale, high on a cliff, after the death of her love interest Uncas, when she looks the murderer Magua in the eye and prefers a self-chosen death over a life as a sex slave of the Huron warrior.

Director: Michael Mann, Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Hawkeye), Madeleine Stowe (Cora), Johdi May (Alice), Russell Means (Chingachgook), Eric Schweig (Uncas), Steven Waddington (Major Heyward), Wes Studi (Magua), Maurice Roëves (Colonel Munro), Patrice Chéreau (General Montcalm), Cinematography: Dante Spinotti, Screenplay: Michael Mann, Christopher Crowe, Music: Randy Edelman, Trevor Jones


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