The Last of the Mohicans July 27, 2018
1 Hr., 54 Mins.
At the time, a movie like The Last of the Mohicans was an unexpected development in an oeuvre as cohesive as Mann’s. Whereas his previous ventures were modern, crime-focal, and stylized, the 1992 film made, and still makes, for a curveball: a big-budgeted, rugged, and expansive historical epic to contrast with his streamlined noir homages.
Mann’s risk pays off. The Last of the Mohicans is one of his best movies: It is a sweeping, oversized tale that harks back to the oversized, if hyper-romanticized, historical fantasias constructed by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and King Vidor.
I reveled in it, though I remained well aware that the feature indubitably suppresses the harder realities of the time period during which it’s set. It takes place during the French and Indian War — in 1757, to be exact — and follows the half-Native American, half-white Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he and his cohorts attempt to safely escort British army sisters Cora and Alice (Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May) through the dangerous New York countryside.
The movie is technically an adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757, the infamously substandard James Fenimore Cooper novel from 1826. But it is purportedly more of a remake of the 1936 cinematization of the book, which starred Randolph Scott. Both the source material and the Dust Bowl-era take are unfamiliar to me. Popular opinion, though, says that the 1992 dramatization is far more enjoyable than the novel on which it’s minimally based, and that it makes for an improvement on the aforementioned movie which shares its title.
This is easy to believe: The Last of the Mohicans, though historically inaccurate and rose-tinted, makes for involving and transportive popcorn entertainment. It was important to Mann that the film showcase period-authentic raiment and iconography, and that the movie be shot in middle-of-nowhere outdoors to bolster realism. (But while the film takes place in a scantily chartered upstate New York, it was mostly shot in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, along with a smattering of other locations.) The actors, particularly the notoriously thorough Day-Lewis, were similarly painstaking in their efforts to achieve a sort of performative authenticity, learning the ins and outs of survival and how to actually use the props they were wielding.
The commitment is advantageous. Even when The Last of the Mohicans is more Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) than it is Black Robe (1991), it is convincing and noticeably detailed in its staging. Mann ogles the scenery; the movie often resembles the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, the American landscape artist whose spectacular, though idealized, body of work was so often magnificent that it sometimes did not seem to matter if you were gazing at one of his illustrations as opposed to actually standing in an outdoor setting.
Spectacular though idealized is also a suitable way to describe The Last of the Mohicans. It is lavishly built and sensorially attentive — often resplendent in its design and photographic inclinations. Curtailing accuracy in the name of a robust, old-fashioned adventure, though, is perhaps questionable. Why glamorize a time period so much more senselessly violent and abject in reality? Mann’s craftsmanship is so stunning that we’re almost able to suspend our qualms. B+
hen The Last of the Mohicans was released in the fall of 1992, it had been nearly a decade since Michael Mann, the paragon of the sleek crime drama, had helmed a feature film. His last project for the silver screen was 1986’s Manhunter, a glossy, Hannibal Lecter-centric neo-noir, and he’d been keeping himself busy in the meantime, for a period lasting from 1984 to 1990, by executive producing the consummate television detective serial, Miami Vice.