This is part of my effort to write about my 100 favorite films in two pages or less. This one is still in it's rough stages.
The Last Of The Mohicans
by Michael Mann
In order for one to understand my love for this film, one must know the role it has played in my life. My childhood had a very definite incidental soundtrack; my parents loved music and movies more than anything else I can think of. Along with the music of Richard Thompson, R.E.M., and Talking Heads, there were films that both my mom and dad loved enough to watch regularly. The film that enthralled me most of these white noise pictures was Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans. As a child it was easy to understand why I loved it: the sound of cannons and muskets firing, that visceral score, swordsmen on horseback, chaotic atmosphere, intense fighting with knives and hatchets, what’s not to love? As I got older and began to remember the film, I felt I probably had an incomplete picture as I don’t think I had ever sat down and watched it all the way through. When I finally took the time to view our battered VHS copy, I was amazed there was so much I had missed. It took a few years to appreciate the nature of the romantic direction it takes, the criticism of the colonial mindset, and that the reason I loved watching every second was because of the unbelievably gorgeous cinematography, but I did know that this film was going to last forever because at its core was unbridled passion the likes of which I’d never encountered before and have rarely seen since.
The plot, though idiosyncratic to boot, might be the most satisfying love story ever filmed. In the forests of an America caught in the midst of the French Indian War, a white man raised by Mohawk Indians and the daughter of a Scottish general fighting the French meet by chance. When the English regiment assigned to protect the woman, Cora Munroe and her sister on their way to their father’s garrison, they are ambushed by a Huron war party. The man, Hawkeye (Nathaniel by birth), his adopted father and brother come to their rescue and escort the sisters and Cora’s inept suitor Duncan to the fort. Nathaniel and Cora do not understand each other, and are at odds for a time due to their differences. When they see that perhaps they are not so different, they begin to fall in love, unfortunately this happens to coincide with Nathaniel’s decision to lead the colonial militia stationed at Munroe’s fort to leave the fort to check on their families (the Huron war party has evidently been busy). Nathaniel is nearly hanged for conspiracy to aid sedition, but a brief truce with the French leads the English army out of the fort and into the arms of the waiting Huron. It seems their leader, Magua, has a blood feud with Munroe and wishes to see both the man and his two daughters killed. This proves to be a greater obstacle than British shackles for Nathaniel, who must rescue Cora after she is taken north to the Huron land by force, but it is also the single greatest display of love ever filmed.
As a kid, I got that this movie was different from most others; I returned to this before I re-watched many of the movies intended for my age group. I know that this is due mostly to my love of the film’s soundtrack. Trevor Jones’s half of the score sounds like the musical equivalent of thunder and makes everything on screen ten thousand times as urgent and romantic. It was because of the music that I understood that though the violence is what attracted me to the film, it is the boundless love between the heroes that makes this film transcendent of its time and constraints. The movie is powerful enough, for example, to leave its weak source materials behind (which include James Fennimore Cooper’s unwieldy novel and the 1936 movie starring Randolph Scott). This is a movie that benefited from the time of its conception as much as it did the people who crafted it. There are the two composers (Randy Edelman was brought on due to time constraints to score lighter sections of the film, the standout being the scene in which a courier is dispatched from the fort), Jones’ music being some of the greatest ever written for a film (the source of his recurring theme was a Celtic traditional). The two greatest scenes of the film (Hawkeye’s race across the battlefield to rescue Cora, and the final clash between the Mohicans and Hurons) would be flat were it not for Jones’ compositions. His music is so important because so much goes unspoken. Michael Mann and co-writer Christopher Crowe were smart enough to leave much of the feelings (the resentments especially) silent so that the resolution of these conflicts could be simple and effective. When Magua murders his enemy, he makes a point of telling him why; when he fights with Chingachgook, Hawkeye’s father, they have no need for words. When Hawkeye and Cora first kiss passionately to Jones’s swooning strings, they don’t utter so much as a word. Mann knows that words aren’t always good enough, nor are they always necessary.
Who better to capture the urgency and passion of a man who discovers how much he will do for love than Daniel Day-Lewis. He may have spent 8 months in the woods learning how to run and fire a musket at the same time, but what makes his performance is the fire in his eyes when Cora is in danger. Today’s stable of leading men simply pale in comparison to Day-Lewis, who is at much at home throwing a knife as he is madly declaring his love with what little language his Hawkeye knows. Because we love the character, because we wish him to succeed, we suspend our disbelief. Could three men continually outfight entire regiments of armed soldiers? When the outcome is so pleasing, it’s hard to answer truthfully. With the music pounding, the brilliantly choreographed battle raging in the background, and the heroine in danger, belief is happily given over to the beauty of the film. Michael Mann has always been a master of building tension, and here he shows the simplest way to achieve it; two lovers are apart, one is in danger, the other starts running and will not stop.
Dante Spinotti may not have a lot of other work to his name, but he more than earns his place among the world’s greatest cinematographers here. Spinotti succeeds in making the woods and water that surround the characters as beautiful as the story itself. In a film about an America untainted by capitalism or the age of industry, he shows just how flawlessly and effortlessly gorgeous the natural world is. His footage of the North Carolina woodlands is stunning and has few rivals. While Mann’s compositions are doing their part, it’s the fathomless color of an endless world that captures the eye. From the opening pursuit of a buck, where every flash of moving bodies swims in a chasm of glorious, untouched scenery. The surroundings lose much of their charm when the greedy English occupy the frame (in one striking example, a perfectly composed shot of a bridge and its reflection on the pond below is slowly crossed by horse-drawn carriages). When the soldiers transporting Cora and her sister are ambushed, the scene is dark, dusty, and surrounded by dying foliage. The makeshift road is a pale brown and the forest is enshrouded in gun smoke and the red from uniforms and blood (as in the mesmerizing clash between the Hurons and the English refugees). When Nathaniel and his family take charge and lead the three survivors to Munroe’s fort, they immediately happen upon a small river framed in a rock bed. Between the deep green of the forest that extends for miles around, and the pristine water and stone, it is perfection. The lesson that Cora learns by falling in love with Hawkeye, that one must abandon material foibles and the petty English gentrification of the land, is one that Spinotti’s camera has already taught the audience subconsciously. This is a film that not only celebrates the love between two disparate people, but also declares its love for the land like fire from a cannon.