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‘The Last of the Mohicans” (1992)

by Keith Garlington Special to the Democrat-Gazette | April 1, 2022 at 1:31 a.m.

I try (and often fail) to steer away from lofty language like "of all-time" and "best ever," especially in the world of movies. But we cinephiles are an odd bunch, and we tend to rate, scrutinize, and quantify nearly everything when it comes to the films we watch, the directors we enjoy, the actors we love, etc. That's why whenever I'm asked the question "What are your favorite movies of all-time?" I always have a list armed and ready.

One of the movies cemented on my personal list of "all-time favorites" is Michael Mann's stellar adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel "The Last of the Mohicans." It's hard to believe, but this year the film turns 30-years-old, yet in many ways it still feels overlooked and undervalued. And while it sits handsomely at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, it's a film that rarely finds its way into conversations about the best movies from that last three decades. Allow me to make a case for why it should.

There have been countless big screen adaptations of "The Last of the Mohicans" dating as far back as 1920. But in 1992, Michael Mann not only delivered what's arguably the best film version of the well-traveled classic, but also one of the most finely crafted and purely cinematic period pieces of its day. You could call it an unflinching frontier action movie unfolding across a beautiful yet war-torn setting. But at the same time, there's also a passionate love story at its core. It's a romance of clashing cultures that is essential to the plot and never feels tacked on or disingenuous. In fact, it fuels and drives the narrative all the way to its powerful final 15 minutes.

The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis who gives what I believe is one of his more underrated performances. He plays Nathaniel, the adopted white son of Mohican chief Chingachgook (Russell Means). Joined by Uncas (Eric Schweig), Chingachgook's only blood son, the three find themselves pulled into the festering politics and violence of the French and Indian War.

The drama begins as the three trackers pick up the trail of a Huron war party on its way to ambush British soldiers. The troops are escorting Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May), daughters of a British Colonel stationed at Fort William Henry. Nathaniel, Chingachgook, and Uncas rescue the two sisters while the Huron leader Magua (the ever terrific Wes Studi) escapes into the forest. Realizing more Huron are on the way, Nathaniel agrees to lead Cora, Alice, and Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) safely to the fort. From there relationships develop, jealousy and deception is revealed, and the horrors of a new kind of war take center stage.

The story is energized by a truly wonderful cast. Day-Lewis has a sparkling chemistry with Stowe, and their onscreen romance feels genuine despite feeling a little hurried. Lewis also excels in the action sequences along with Schweig and Means. The action is beautifully shot and framed with the natural setting playing a big role. Also fun to watch is Studi as Magua, a twisted Huron warrior who wants to kill as many "grey hairs" as possible. But what makes his character so compelling is the history that drives his rage. He's a complex villain who doesn't fit into your prototypical "bad guy" mold.

While not purely faithful to Cooper's novel, Mann and co-writer Christopher Crowe put together a sweeping cinematic adaptation that still sticks to the heart of the classic tale. It shrewdly contrasts the rugged demanding frontier life with the haughty aristocratic attitudes of the English and French. Inevitably, that monarchist arrogance and sense of entitlement crashes against the harsh and violent reality of the frontier. It also doesn't shy away from the gritty and sometimes brutal nature of frontier combat. Yet with the exception of one particular (yet memorable) scene, the violence never feels gratuitous or senseless.

I've mentioned the wonderfully shot action sequences, but the same could be said for the picture as a whole. This is a gorgeous movie. Filmed in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, the movie features countless scenes of natural beauty. Through DP Dante Spinotti's lens, the breathtaking locations gives the setting an uncharted and untouched look. And whether it's intense closeups or exquisite wide shots, the visuals impress at every turn.

And I have to mention the outstanding score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman. Of all the movie scores I've heard (and there is no shortage of great ones out there), few have affected a film or affected me more than this one (fun fact: a couple of tracks even made their way into my wedding). From the percussion-driven orchestration during the battle at Fort William Henry to the emotionally rich string arrangement of the film's unforgettable finale. Each note hits perfectly, and the score adds to the mood and tone of almost every scene.

After 30 years, "The Last of the Mohicans" still looks great, sounds great, and plays great. It's an exhilarating action film, a sweeping romance and a historical drama all wrapped into one narrative and technical wonder. Yet despite all of its time-tested strengths and achievements, it still sits as a well-liked movie, but one rarely (if ever) mentioned among the greats. Obviously all of this stuff is subjective, but I think "The Last of the Mohicans" deserves a spot in that conversation. If you haven't seen it in a while, give it another look. If you've never seen it, what better time than now? It's still as impressive as it was on opening day in 1992.

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