The Last of the Mohicans
directed by Michael Mann
(20th Century Fox, 1992)

I wasn't very fond of James Fenimore Cooper's novels when I was made to read them in high school English, so I didn't rush right out to see one when it was remade for the silver screen. My mistake.

The Last of the Mohicans, directed by Michael Mann, presents a grim and glorious picture of the American colonies in the years preceding the American Revolution. Set in 1756, during the third year of England's war with France and its native allies over the colonies, it focuses on Cooper's hero Natty "Hawkeye" Bumppo (wisely renamed Nathaniel Poe for the film). Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a frontier trapper and scout, adopted son of Chingachgook (Russell Means) and blood brother to Chingachgook's only son, Uncas (Eric Schweig). They are content to stay out of the war until they rescue the stern and snobbish officer Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington), last survivor of a troop of English soldiers waylaid by France's Indian allies, and Heyward's two civilian charges, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) Munro. The sisters are the daughter of English Colonel Edmund Munro (Maurice Roeves), who is beseiged by French forces under the command of General Montcalm (Patrice Chereau).

Hawkeye falls for Cora, so he escorts them to Munro at Fort George and remains with Munro's forces until the English fort surrenders. During the survivors' trek to a neighboring fort, they are attacked again by Indians led by the vengeful Magua (Wes Studi), who holds a deeply personal grudge against Munro and his kin. Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas tackle massive odds to save the Munro girls from a horrible fate.

Set in a world where rifles held only one charge and riflemen often had time for one shot before being overwhelmed and reduced to hand-to-hand combat, the movie is filled with scenes of incredible, brutal violence. It's warfare at a primal level, contrasting the stiff, highly disciplined ranks of the English soldiers to the wild savagery of the Mohawks and Hurons. It spotlights the graceful, fluid fighting style, albeit no less savage, of Hawkeye and his friends -- the cast must have trained for long hours to make those scenes look so real.

All this is played out against a backdrop of the stunning scenery of a world still unspoiled (set in the Adirondacks, but filmed in the Carolinas), accentuated by a stirring score by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones, with additional music by Ciarán Brennan, Clannad, Daniel Lanois and Dougie Maclean used to great effect. The final sequence -- a running battle along a mountain cliff set off by a pulse-pounding Irish reel set -- is some of the finest film-making I've seen in terms of action and intensity. There is little dialogue in these final minutes, beyond exclamations, but it's hard to watch without a quickening heartbeat and a stirring of the soul.

Don't let Cooper's name scare you away from this one. It's a must-see movie I can recommend highly.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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