Twenty-five years since its original release, Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans (1992) still proves itself to be an early highlight in the director’s formidable canon. Before he breached the digital frontier, bringing a glassy elegance to the urban sprawl of the American imagination, he created an impressively evocative work that brought a modernist’s eye to the old-fashioned matinée adventure. It’s a precarious balance, but one that Mann makes look effortless. By structuring the film as a historically accurate slice of life, we see every element of living during the torturous birth of a nation.
The original 1936 Randolph Scott film version is a key touchstone; for all the authenticity and attention-to-detail, Mann still chased the thrust of a swashbuckler. Set during the French and Indian War of the mid-eighteenth century, Last of the Mohicans takes place in upstate New York where British and French troops are fighting with the aid of various Native American “war parties”. Nathaniel Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), a white man adopted by the last members of a dying tribe called the Mohicans, becomes the unwitting protector of Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May), the daughters of a British colonel (Maurice Roeves) after sadistic Huron warrior Magua (Wes Studi) targets the girls in revenge for a past injustice committed against his family by the colonel.
The dual pull of romance and war is where Mann works his magic; they serve as the twin poles of genre, allowing the more rugged authenticity to flourish in the space between them. Day-Lewis is pivotal to Mann’s tone. Eschewing the thunderous force-of-nature acting of his later roles, he shows a lightness of touch and quiet authority all too rare in his other work. His commitment to the role remained absolute, with the usual stories of the man and his method carrying from the set and into Hollywood legend. And, for once, his support did not languish in his shadow, with Stowe giving an exceptional performance as his stoic equal. Underlying all the action and rich storytelling is a distinct sense of regret; the notion that an idyll was lost in the violence of empire building. The new world was an Eden, and the rot began early.
Set at the point where a different, modern America was born, bloodied and conflict-ridden, Last of the Mohicans stresses the importance of freedom and self-determination, and plays these ideas out against a sense of fin de siècle mournfulness. From Heaven’s Gate (1980) to There Will be Blood (2007), these central ideas are evergreen in the auteurist American cinema, but Mann allowed them to flourish in the rip-roaring romanticism of an old-fashioned genre picture. It was a stroke of brilliance.