Friday, May 02, 2008
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
(Image from IMP Awards)
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Michael Mann seems like a strange director to be associated with this film - his filmography veers strongly towards contemporary dramas and thrillers that have a very modern aesthetic. The man is, however, flexible enough to step outside that zone, as 'The Last of the Mohicans' ably demonstrates.
Set during the 18th Century 'French and Indian War' in North America, the story is quite lean. The English are fighting the French who are allied with several Indian tribes, and they enlist the help of the American colonists to fight with them; this requires that the colonists leave their families exposed to raids by the Indians allied to the French while they go off to the front lines. Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), Chingachgook (Russel Means), and Uncas (Eric Schweig) are the last of an Indian tribe called the Mohicans who refuse to get involved with the war but are inadvertently caught up in events when they rescue a British Colonel's (Maurice Roëves) two daughters, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) Munro, from a Huron Indian attack. It turns out that a Huron man named Magua (Wes Studi) has sworn to take vengeance on Colonel Munro and his children. As a romantic relationship develops between Hawkeye and Cora, the three Mohicans find themselves guiding and protecting the two women and a British officer, Maj. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington), from Magua.
Simple enough, but it makes for a relentlessly thrilling adventure film with a touch of romance set against a well flushed out historical backdrop. The historical aspects are deftly interwoven into the story without ever overriding it, which allows the film to work as purely an adventure even though there is much to appreciate with respect to the military conflict, American colonial life, and the native Indians and their uneasy relationships with the foreign settlers. The script presents these aspects quite neatly and the film is well paced, providing some excitement right from the opening scenes and only slowing down for brief periods. The dialogue is a little weak at times and it sounds very awkward initially but seems to click after a while (or perhaps I just got used to it). The production values are quite excellent, and Mann stages the film as a grand war epic complete with a fort under siege, a large scale battle (keeping in mind that this was in the pre-Gladiator / Braveheart days), several skirmishes, and a lot of running through stunning landscapes (some of this reminded me of The Two Towers)! The action isn't as intense and brutal as some newer films, but the set pieces are still very impressively executed, with the leads in particular being convincing in the action department.
Russel Means and Eric Schweig have little in the way of dialogue and are really supporting players, but they deliver pretty strong performances nonetheless, with their characters being defined as stoic, devoted, and lethal; both performances are defined mostly by physicality. Daniel Day-Lewis is, unsurprisingly, excellent even when he just seems to be posing in statuesque positions for the camera. Hawkeye is noble and decent, but can also be a complete badass when the situation calls for it. Physically he's more than a match for his two fellow 'Mohicans', but as is always the case with Day-Lewis the character appears to have depths only hinted at in the script. One of the weaknesses of the script is the romance, which is severely undercooked, but Day-Lewis and the stunning Madeline Stowe make it convincing. Stowe's Cora is that slightly modern period character who often seems jarringly contemporary and out of place, but here it works and she comes across as tenacious and strong willed without any of that forced female empowerment nonsense. As Cora's sister Jodhi May is, like the other Mohicans, mostly quiet and in the sidelines but makes a decent enough impression as the more fragile of the two women. Wes Studi is terrific as the hellbent Magua, cutting a striking, frightening figure obsessed with vengeance. Also pretty good are Steven Waddington as Maj. Heyward, Maurice Roëves as Colonel Munro, and Patrice Chéreau as the noble French General Montcalm.
All in all 'The Last of the Mohicans' is an adventure film that is surprisingly action heavy but one that still delivers on all fronts. It's an engaging, exciting historical epic that is rousing and propulsive right up to its somewhat melancholy finale. Strangely it seems to be a tad underrated if the IMDB consensus is anything to go by, but that shouldn't put anyone off watching what is an excellent cinematic experience.
* Edited to add - I forgot to mention the magnificent score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, which includes a stirring and memorable main theme (which is, understandably, a little overused).