The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

If I could point to one movie that has just about everything I want out of movie it would be The Last of the Mohicans. It’s not so much the story as it is the way The Last of the Mohicans presents it all that fascinates me. The way it transports us to another time, the way it places us in another culture and the plethora of breathtaking vistas. I am, after all, a man all about the sights of cinema.

But even more than that I think it’s the core of the film that entices me and reflects the kind of films I gravitate towards. The film takes place in the middle of French and Indian War, following the story of Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), a white man who was raised by Chinachgook (Russell Means), a Mohican. Along with Chinachgook’s real blood son, Uncas (Eric Schweig), the trio weave their way through the war and attack a group of waring Hurons, rescuing Major Dunchan Henward (Steven Waddington) and his two charges of Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) the daughters of a British Commander.

However, amidst the whole war is the love story between Cora and Hawkeye. Even while the world around them burns and falls apart, at times literally, they find something beautiful. Like the sweeping vistas throughout the film there is beauty to be found even in the middle of the mindless battles. What the war is even about is never delved into; it only seems to be a matter of one side believing they are superior to the other.

Perhaps this lack of explanation is due to the film’s small economy of words. Rather than bog down the film in exposition the film is much more interested in letting things happen. There are conversations when there needs to be, but for the most part its actions. Yes, there are a number of lengthy conversations but they are usually punctuated by action that speaks much louder than the words that came before.

However, one beautiful exception is the final scene of the director’s expanded edition. The dialogue expresses a beautiful lamentation on a fading race but in way that is realistic and doesn’t sound like white guilt. Part of this is because there are no bad guys in the film. Sure, one could knock The French or the Hurons but the film actually goes out of its way to humanize them and show their whole perspective on the war.

Neither is it an Europeans vs. Native Americans film. Hawkeye is firmly planted in both worlds and while the dichotomy certainly becomes an issue it’s his ability to understand both races that makes him succeed, not his blind adherence to one culture a la Avatar. Good movies should be able to put us in someone else’s shoes and The Last of the Mohicans puts us in the shoes of many. Even a character we’ve come to see as despicable surprises us with a beautiful sacrifice. No man is less honorable than the next.

Yet there’s conflict to be sure. If anything the conflict seems to come from a sense to protect and assert one’s honor against everyone else, mainly through force. The action could easily lose itself into spectacle but the film skillfully balances the personal nature of the story with the overall context of a given conflict. It would be easy to lose Hawkeye in the midst of a battle and while we see other players the action, it centers on Hawkeye. And the film also avoids the pitfall of being overproduced with fancy camerawork, unlike the similar film Braveheart that came out a few years later. The action is presented simply and elegantly and is all the better for it.

And if you are going to bring up elegance you have to stop and talk about the absolutely fantastic score. From the steady pacing of the drums to the sweeping brass the film evokes the vast nature of the landscape and the call to adventure. And the whole score is laced with romance with the long, lingering notes. And it has a taste of folksy music as well, creating a contrast between the romanticism of civilization and the elegance of an ancient culture. It’s among the most beautiful scores I’ve heard in any film and it fits the film perfectly.

From the sweeping vistas to the small battles, The Last of the Mohicans is a graceful picture that captures wildly romantic ideas amidst a mindless war. Amidst the din of battle is the beating of two hearts. Is it sappy? Probably, but it’s done with a skill and mastery that never makes it smack of sentimentality. If anything the film is realistic as proven by its last moments. Yet even then it seeks something higher, beyond and vast. That last moment is so simple yet says so much in five words, reminding us that stories, whether fictional or not, have the power to preserve the richness of a time and culture.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

The Last of the Mohicans (Director’s Expanded Edition)