Dir. Michael Mann. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Steven Waddington
What if Michael Mann is responsible for the best journalism flick of the ’90s, the best cop movie of the ’90s, and the best western of the ’90s? I don’t know that there’s much argument that The Insider and Heat fill those first two niches, but there may be more argument about The Last of the Mohicans. Make no mistake, however: The Last of the Mohicans is emphatically a western. Not only does it have virtually all of the elements of the western (and, amusingly enough, appears to have been emboldened by the success of Dances with Wolves while simultaneously being overshadowed by the Best Picture winner that year, Unforgiven), but based on the historical setting of the film, it is right on the western border of where white Americans settled. The Last of the Mohicans takes place before the Proclamation of 1763, and even if there are settlers bold enough to move out into frontier space, they are wary of going too far. The film’s characters vocally note the danger of living on the cheap land on the frontier while simultaneously reveling in the freedom that it promises for hard workers and stout hearts. (It’s 1757/1992. Don’t hold your breath waiting for someone to say, “But whose land is it really?” If you’re watching the movie, I highly encourage you to say it yourself.)
In the early going of the movie, there’s a scene at a house reduced to rubble featuring a family reduced to corpses by the local Indians; in many ways, from the dramatic effect to the timing within the movie, it mirrors a similar scene in The Searchers. Even though they’re technically fighting the French, the English colonists are significantly more concerned with the threats from hostile Indians, who pose a vast day-to-day danger in the way that the geopolitics of the Seven Years’ War simply don’t. In terms of fighting, it is a select few who are like a wrecking ball while the soldiers – and their commanders – make blunder after blunder in the face of Native American threats. If they’d made this movie in 1962 instead of 1992, Charles Bronson would be giving Lee Remick speeches about the nobility of frontier life and self-sacrifice in between making love to her and shooting down tough-lookin’ Indians.
It also can’t be a good (conventional) western without a stunning score. The Last of the Mohicans has that in bunches, written primarily by Trevor Jones with some assistance from Randy Edelman. Because of its score, Mohicans doesn’t rely on words to make its points. Screaming does just fine; the crack of bone and the gurgling of bloodied throats are the lyrics on top of the film’s pulsing, familiar music.
For six minutes, the film hands over its climax to “Promontory,” an electrified version of its theme. The company of our heroes had already begun to shrink; Major Heyward (Waddington), volunteered to be burned alive for Magua’s (Wes Studi) revenge. In these six minutes, Uncas (Eric Schweig) is killed by Magua in hand-to-hand combat; having witnessed her would-be beloved killed and slid down the mountainside, Alice (Jodhi May, who is not playing identically named Nobel Laureate Alice Munro in this film) decides to step off the ledge rather than go back to her bloody-handed captor. It turns out to be an especially sad choice; ninety seconds later, Magua (and several of his minions) have been killed by Hawkeye (Day-Lewis) and his adoptive father, Chingachgook (Russell Means). Magua is dispatched by Chingachgook’s gunstock war club, which is one of the nastiest melee weapons ever put on the silver screen. And in those six minutes, the only word spoken is Hawkeye’s cry of “Uncas!” as his adoptive brother plummets off the cliff. Cora (Stowe) screams, and the sounds of weaponry and wounding are thrown in. (The Last of the Mohicans went one-for-one at the Oscars, for Sound Mixing.) Mann has a clear eye as to where the punches should land in this film, and the best way to set up those blows is with eyes first. Over these six minute he goes from close-ups to American shots to, a couple of times, shots which show us the entire mountainside and make the people look like pinpricks of unusual, unwanted color on a natural canvas. Among the green and gray of the promontory, no skin tone looks quite correct and no item of clothing feels totally appropriate. The music is fittingly anxious, as if the ultimate message should be to get down from this obvious natural Golgotha with its own supply of spreadeagled deaths. Both May and Stowe have extended shots where they focus their eyes on someone else; about halfway through the movie, Stowe makes eyes at Daniel Day-Lewis in a way that I thought only I did. May, in this scene, with her bangs falling over her round eyes and her face totally set with a decision, is as haunting as any filmic depiction of Jesus on his cross. And just as Stowe and Day-Lewis’ lovemaking scene is essentially silent but for the score, May’s suicide scene is much the same. What would these people say that would increase the drama, raise our blood pressure higher? The answer, of course, is nothing at all.
The Last of the Mohicans is intelligent, but not brainy or cerebral by any stretch of the imagination. It does not raise questions external to what the viewer would already have had in his or her head. The Searchers is a profound meditation on racism; McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a dark comedy about the strength of heat-seeking capitalism. The Last of the Mohicans does not give enough screentime to Chingachgook, even considering his moving monologue at the end of the movie, to express what the forthcoming extinction of the Native Americans means to the continent. Nor do Hawkeye’s superhero abilities do much more than repeat the trope of “White Man: The Improved Indian.” Cora, for all of her open-mindedness and independence, is helpless again and again. The Last of the Mohicans has these specters hanging about like the clouds over the (presumed) Adirondacks, but does not linger on them any more than one can stand on the clouds themselves. It would be a different movie, and a better one, if it chose to think a little harder about its tropes.
What The Last of the Mohicans is – and twenty-five years later, this is almost hard to recognize – is a remarkable action film. In that video above, Hawkeye loads a musket on the run, picks up a loaded one off the ground, and fires two killshots holding each one like a sawed-off shotgun. Only a couple of minutes earlier, he mercy killed Major Heyward from a significant distance; even earlier in the film, he displays the kind of sniping prowess typically left to video games with, let’s hear it again, an 18th Century gun. Magua cuts out Colonel Munro’s (Maurice Roeves) heart in the middle of a battle. People jump off waterfalls, scalp one another, and, in one heartpounding sequence, come very close to slitting Madeleine Stowe’s throat and force Daniel Day-Lewis to kill like, four people between him and the would-be throat-slicer. The Last of the Mohicans makes room for a western with major action setpieces and reasonably high stakes. In that scene where Cora very nearly is killed in the midst of a hundred muskets firing and even more people screaming, the camera is still when it watches her and moves at lightning speed alongside Hawkeye. It is virtuoso shooting; you almost can’t help but get swept up in the action.