After working on the films Thief and Manhunter, and the television shows Miami Vice and Crime Story (the less said about his film The Keep, the better, as Mann is as proud of that film as James Cameron is of Piranha 2: The Spawning), writer-director Michael Mann wanted to step outside of the crime genre and try something completely different. Something that didn’t involve actors whose egos convinced them to make albums that never should’ve been made in the first place when they weren’t telling the world that they were going to achieve EGOT status. (Oh, Philip Michael Thomas, you sweet summer child. I loved your work as Tubbs on Miami Vice, and as Lance Vance in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, but you winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony was never going to happen.) That something was an adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans. Mann wasn’t the first director to adapt the novel and turn it into a feature film, as there was the 1936 film version directed by George B. Seitz, and starring Randolph Scott and Binnie Barnes. It was this film that inspired Mann to attempt his own version of The Last of the Mohicans, as he watched it when he was a child and it stuck with him long into adulthood.
From this interview with Hitfix:
Mann first saw the most famous previous version of the story, George B. Seitz’s 1936 production, when he was three or four years old. It had a lasting impression on him, he said, because of two fragmented ideas that had bounced around inside his head ever since.
“[There was] something to do with this corollary tragedy, that was very sad, of a suicide, which of course I was recalling Alice and Cora,” he said. “And there was something about the anomaly of Indians who didn’t look like how I recalled Indians looking for movies, because of course they were Northeastern woodlands Indians — they were Iroquois — in conjunction not with cowboys but with red coats. So something just stuck.”
Once Mann knew how to approach the story and convinced 20th Century Fox that this was a movie worth making (with Warner Bros. handling international distribution), The Last of the Mohicans opened in theaters on September 25, 1992.
In the year 1757, The French and Indian War is in full effect, and the British are attempting to increase their ranks by approaching men who live in the frontier of New York to form militias and fight on their behalf. One person who refuses to fight and risk his life for the British is Nathaniel Poe, a.k.a. Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), who lives in and roams the frontier land with his adoptive family — his Mohican father, Chingachgook (the late Russell Means), and his brother, Uncas (Eric Schweig) — as they hunt and trade in order to support themselves.
Elsewhere, Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) and her younger sister, Alice (Jodhi May), are to meet with their father, Col. Munro (the late Maurice RoÃ«ves), and are being escorted to his location by Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington), who has expressed his romantic interest in Cora by proposing to her, and his Mohawk scout, Magua (Wes Studi). Unfortunately, Magua (who is actually Huron) betrays Heyward and the two Munro sisters, when he and a Huron war party ambush the British soldiers accompanying them, and it is only thanks to Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook’s arrival that they were able to survive.
The three men agree to accompany Heyward, Cora, and Alice to Fort William Henry where Col. Munro is, and it doesn’t take long for them to realize that Magua has his own mysterious vendetta against the Munro family, as well as Hawkeye and Cora to realize how attracted they are to one another. Loyalties are soon tested, as Hawkeye and Cora find themselves in opposition of Munro and Heyward’s military authority, and as Magua makes it very clear that nothing and no one will stand in the way of his vengeance against Col. Munro and his family.
The Last of the Mohicans is simply amazing at how it immerses the audience into the world they’re viewing onscreen, thanks to Mann’s exceptional directing, the superb screenplay by Mann and Christopher Crowe, and the gorgeous cinematography by longtime Mann collaborator Dante Spinotti. Whether it’s an entire fort under attack by enemy soldiers, or the lush and beautiful frontier land where Hawkeye hunts for food with his family, and where the British battles both the French and the Huron to the death with no mercy, the visuals may be beautiful, but the scenes that accompany them are not always easy or pleasant to watch. If you’ve never seen The Last of the Mohicans and you’re reading this, spoilers be damned, you may be asking: “Just how uneasy and unpleasant is the violence in this movie?”
Well, it’s not overly gruesome or violent, but … let’s just say that when Magua vows to kill Col. Munro by cutting his heart out with his knife and eating it whole like it’s a Chicken Tenders sub from Publix, he is not kidding. We, fortunately, don’t see the actual cannibalism take place, but it’s enough to remind the audience that Magua and his Roaring Rampage of Revenge is no joke, and neither are the battle sequences throughout the film. The sound effects that accompany shots of people getting struck in the face with clubs and tomahawks are sickeningly realistic. There are actual scalpings that occur which will make you wince and instantly reach for your hair upon seeing one. As for the final battle between Magua and Chingachgook that closes the film?
A few years ago, I watched The Last of the Mohicans with my churchgoing Jamaican grandmother. She was able to sit through the film and its battle sequences with little to no complaint, in the form of her shaking her head and saying, “Jesus have mercy, my God.” When she saw Chingachgook go absolutely ham on Magua with his gunstock war club, right after he took down the Huron war party that was protecting him, she literally pulled a George Costanza and got up from her seat to leave and go to bed like “That’s it for me!” (This is the very same woman who would somehow go on to watch every minute of No Country For Old Men and Season 1 of Luther without leaving her seat to go read Bible verses instead, but that viewing experience still stuck with me.)
All that being said, the battle sequences throughout the film are brutal and uncompromising, but impressive to watch. Considering Michael Mann’s obsessive desire for accuracy and verisimilitude in every aspect of his work, even something as simple as Hawkeye using his knife and tomahawk to quickly and effectively defeat a Huron in armed combat is unlike any other fight scene that would be seen in any other historical drama.
The cinematography, writing, and directing in this film deserve much praise, but another aspect that elevates The Last of the Mohicans is the sweeping and majestic musical score by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones. Particularly their orchestration of Dougie MacLean’s “The Gael,” which can be heard when Hawkeye and Cora finally give in to their mutual attraction and kiss each other, and again during the climax when Magua and his war party are confronted by Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook.
Despite the fact that it takes place in the middle of a massive war, The Last of the Mohicans is, at its heart, a love story. And quite possibly, it’s the closest we will ever get to seeing Michael Mann make a full-blown romantic drama, even though he always shoots the incredibly passionate kisses between his characters as if they will never see each other again. Seeing the growing respect and attraction between Hawkeye and Cora is as fascinating to watch as every other aspect of the film. When the two of them first meet, they don’t think very highly of one another. That begins to change when Hawkeye explains to her the importance of the frontier, in that it is the only place where poor people can survive while making a life for themselves and their families, and how the spiritual beliefs that he has acquired from his Mohican family is what comforts him when dealing with the losses of his loved ones.
This opens Cora’s eyes to what the world around her is truly like, and begins to change the way she walks through it, which doesn’t escape Hawkeye’s attention. They also have more in common than either of them would expect, as they both care deeply about their family and friends (Cora is more than willing to pick up a flintlock and use it against anyone who might harm her or Alice), are fiercely outspoken against whatever they perceive to be unjust and wrong, and have no interest or desire in walking any path or following any rules that would take their personal choices away from them, whether it’s fighting in a war on behalf of another country, or marrying someone for status rather than for love.
Despite Heyward expressing his romantic intentions towards Cora, he’s no longer even an option for her when Hawkeye is respectful, but direct, in making it very clear to Cora that he wants her. Cora finds herself surprised by this at first, and then realizes how open she is to the idea that she also wants him as well.
Excuse me for just one moment…
If that moment, as well as their eventual kiss, isn’t enough to prove how much Hawkeye and Cora care about each other, and how Tumblr would have made so many GIFs and fan-fiction about the two of them if that app had existed back in the ’90s, there is also the moment when Hawkeye, Cora, Uncas, Alice, Chingachgook, and Heyward are cornered in a cave behind a waterfall with Magua and his Huron war party on their trail. They are outnumbered and have no gunpowder for their pistols and rifles, and Cora convinces Hawkeye that he and his family need to leave and avoid being killed, while she and Alice will stay behind with Heyward and allow themselves to be taken into captivity. This is when Hawkeye tells her to do everything she can in order to stay alive, no matter what happens.
When you see the look on Hawkeye’s face, and hear the steel in his voice as he says to Cora, “I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far…I will find you?”
You believe every word coming out of his mouth, and that he would search the very ends of the Earth to find and save the woman he loves.
Day-Lewis and Stowe do much of the heavy lifting in this film as Hawkeye and Cora, and they’re both outstanding in doing so, but the supporting cast performs some amazing work as well. Steven Waddington as Major Duncan Heyward, who is clearly heartbroken and upset upon realizing that Hawkeye has earned Cora’s affections instead of him, but is willing to fight until his very last breath for his country, and who eventually puts his ego aside and his own life in harm’s way in order to protect Cora and Hawkeye; Maurice Roëves as Col. Munro, whose duty to his country forces him to make decisions that put him at odds with both Hawkeye and Cora; and Wes Studi as Magua, whose entire life and family was torn apart because of Col. Munro’s actions, resulting in him fighting the British on behalf of the French in order to settle his blood feud with Col. Munro by exterminating him and his daughters. (FYI: Wes Studi and Maurice Roëves became very close friends upon meeting on the set of The Last of the Mohicans, and they maintained that friendship until RoÃ«ves’ death in 2020.) Russell Means, Eric Schweig and Jodhi May, who played Chingachgook, Uncas and Alice, don’t receive as much characterization or screen time as their castmates, and it is very likely that the cause of this is 20th Century Fox not being pleased with Mann’s original cut of The Last of the Mohicans being three hours long, and insisting that its runtime be cut down to two hours before its theatrical release.
The Last of the Mohicans was a box-office success, taking in $143 million worldwide on a $40 million budget, and also winning an Oscar for Best Sound. It gave greater recognition to both Day-Lewis and especially to Stowe, who would go on to lead roles in films such as 12 Monkeys, Blink, Short Cuts, and Bad Girls. Its success gave Mann the opportunity to make another film that was of great personal importance to him: Heat, the classic crime drama starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. (It would be followed 27 years later by Heat 2, a sequel/prequel that Mann co-wrote as a novel with Meg Gardiner.)
Mann would then go on to direct The Insider, Ali, Collateral, Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Blackhat. Despite how incredibly well-made The Last of the Mohicans turned out to be (in spite of the behind-the-scenes interference that Mann had to deal with in the editing room), there is no denying that if this film were released today in the age of social media, it would probably be torn to shreds for being a film about Native Americans that is instead focused on two white leads, and would get the same vitriol as the 2003 film The Last Samurai.
It’s very possible that The Last of the Mohicans will be remade once again, only for this next version to focus more on Chingachgook and Uncas instead of on Hawkeye and his relationship with Cora. The fact that we’ve seen more projects in recent years made with, by, and for Native Americans, such as Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls, and Dark Winds shows that if and when such an announcement is made, there are plenty of talented and capable Native American actors, writers, and directors who can and will make that project a reality. But until that day finally comes, you can still watch and enjoy Michael Mann’s version of The Last of the Mohicans, especially since the popular opinion is that it is still better and more enjoyable than the actual book.