The Last of the Mohicans | MASTERPIECES (BluRay)
There is no general consensus about what constitutes an epic movie, but certain characteristics can be found in movies both famous and overlooked. Personally, I like the ambition and “gravitas” that epic movies have, which not always necessarily translates directly into cinematic importance, or merit, but there is something to be said about a film that grabs you, that makes you feel like you have just witnessed something truly amazing. Michael Mann‘s The Last of the Mohicans has always haunted me ever since I first watched it on television. I had read the James F. Cooper novel many times before as a kid, but even though it was a fantastic adventure, only the movie succeeded in truly conveying the full drama of this amazing frontier adventure.
I consider the movie one of the great masterpieces of contemporary cinema, and probably Mann’s finest achievement. Aside from its brilliance, it is an immensely entertaining, romantic and epic motion picture due to the visuals, the characters, and the music. I also consider it to be among my all time personal favorites, it’s a movie that means a lot to me. So I was happy to finally call the revised director’s version my own on BluRay, and after some months I finally got the time to sit down and enjoy it. It was both a trip into my youth, as I had not seen it in certainly over ten years, and also a trip back into 90s filmmaking. Here is my retrospective review.
The novel counts as one of the finest early pieces of literature about the wild west. James Fenimore Cooper, who died in 1851, went on to become famous for his series of stories about a pioneer marksman by the name of Hawkeye. The series was called the Leatherstocking Tales, and The Last of the Mohicans it’s most prominent entry, eventually Cooper’s masterpiece romantic novel. It tells the story of Nathaniel (aka Hawkeye), a hunter and scout, who is friends with the Mohicans Uncas and his father Chingachgook. The two are the last of their tribe. In the midst of the Seven Years War (aka French and Indian War) between the British and the French. Pioneers settlers along the frontier are pressured into serving alongside British colonial forces in repelling French incursions. The French enlist the help of Huron tribes, while the British play the Mohawks against them. It is an ugly trench war and guerilla fight in the woods.
Colonel Munro is a British commander at Fort William Henry. His daughters Cora and Alice get ambushed on the way there. Hawkeye and his friends rescue them. In the midst of the war, British Soldier Duncan Heyward is also sent to the fort, he falls in love with Alice, who eventually falls for Uncas. Hawkeye falls for Cora, and while the two armies clash, Magua, a shady Huron scout, ends up with the girls as prisoners. A daring hunt through the woods ensues, in canoes and on foot, a dramatic rescue following the next, to the backdrop of the gorgeous but wild frontier landscape. It is men versus nature….
In 1993, the movie hit with Daniel Day Lewis as Hawkeye and main protagonist of this adventure. Insiders will notice that the film is closer to the 1936 adaptation with Randolph Scott, than the actual novel. However, the differences are not all that huge. The novel is a lot more intricate and deals a lot more with the military, tribal and political nuances as well as the leading trio’s relationship with their surroundings. The 1993 film concentrates on visuals, drama, the love triangle and the action sequences. A lot of the rest is inferred, not even the extended cut adds all that much more of content to the film. The movie does the romantic roots of the novel justice in sofar as it pits a handful of humans against a merciless, wild environment and illustrates the clash of cultures along the frontier, not just between the intruders and the natives, but also the complex relationship between the natives, between the British and the pioneer settlers, and it even hints at the French-British dispute, which you better read up on in a history book. Obviously many years later the French would side with the colonies to fight the British once more.
For Daniel Day Lewis the movie came about three years after his Oscar win, and he nails this role as well. Even though his portrayal might not be the most realistic picture of a frontiersman (long groomed hair and a fresh shave were probably not frontier average), he makes his character as iconic as possible. His Mohican sidekicks are almost demoted to cameo status, even though the title of the novel and the film make it rather obvious that with the death of Uncas, Chingachgook is all that is left of his line. In a way then, this becomes the movie that is all about Hawkeye, Cora… and Magua. Madeleine Stowe is amazing as the stronger of the two sisters, and Wes Studi pulls of the unlikeable role of his lifetime with the shady Huron string-puller who manages to play everyone but eventually meets his demise at the hands of a raging father.
Especially noteworthy is Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman‘s amazing score for this. The haunting melodies and interesting sound mix contribute a great deal to the epic feel of the movie. Luckily with Michael Mann there is a director who really know how to use them, including muted sounds, complex foley and tunes that offer different volumes and dynamics. This is a mix of contemporary music, such as fiddles and bagpipes, but also great orchestra pieces. A pop song was struck by Mann for this final revised edition. The music greatly complements Mann’s knack for bombastic vistas, the overwhelming nature, and the intricate love story that is set at the heart of this film. The music is in fact so dominant and important, that it is synonymous with the landscape and environment, it becomes one, and together with the cinematography provides the bombastic backdrop and setting for the adventure.
The cinematography – twenty years before Mann would switch to digital filmmaking – is quite stunning. Even though the BluRay doesn’t quite do it justice (see below), it truly captures the man-vs-wilderness atmosphere with stunning vistas of the woods and mountains, and intense close ups of the protagonists and the action. There is plenty of play with lights and shadow, and a great combination with sound design (example: the cannon or gun fire difference between when you hear and when you see it).
There aren’t so many really good movies about that time and this topic, the whole deal with the Native Americans, the local politics, the British-French relationship, it all goes usually unnoticed by Hollywood’s audience. Too far away is the history, too complicated and too gruesome. This aspect receives some attention in the short making-of documentary that is included on the disc, as well. Where Hawkeye and his settler friends are caught in the front line, they become the play ball of global power politics as the war between France and England over the new colonies engulfs the border between Canada and what is now the United States. The natives, some like the Hurons siding with the French, some like the Iroquois siding with the English, others like the Mohawk having established relations with the settlers ever since they arrived, added to the complexity of the situation.
Mann has done an amazing job bringing the period to life. With the help of military advisors, historians and a cinematographer capturing almost a Hawthornian look at this man versus nature setting, he sets this classic toward the backdrop of overwhelming mountain ridges, never-ending wild forests, and dangerous rivers. You can almost feel the constant atmosphere of survival in the film, which depicts not only incoming European technology in a setting inevitably unmerciful to it, but also pitting savage wilderness against “civilized” culture. Cora, in a way, is the most progressive figure of the film as she, despite her dress and good manners, does not flinch but picks up a gun. She adapts to her environment instead of resisting or trying to tame it. In doing that, she gets closer to Hawkeye, whom she ultimately falls in love with.
Lastly is the BluRay. I have to say I was a tad disappointed, as for one of my favorite movies I was expecting to see it looking as best as possible, especially considering Mann’s move to shooting ultra-detailed digital film. The Last of the Mohicans does not look bad, however they could have done a lot more restoring on this and offer a more highly resolved picture with a greater level of detail and sharpness. The material is in good shape but it is by no way a reference quality disc. Colors seem faded at times, the picture sometimes blurry. There is often the feeling of a gray veil over the image, and what is especially distracting is the compression making fast moving images seem blurry or skittish. Despite the high resolution you thus still feel like watching the old VHS tape, there just hasn’t been enough effort put into making this look really amazing and close to the original experience on BluRay. Sound and music are quite an experience, however also here, there is something missing. The track just isn’t as dynamic and lively as you would expect from an HD medium.
The disc offers no extras aside from a short three-part making of featurette which isn’t all that exciting but offers a decent short glimpse into the making of the film, and an audio commentary with Mann that is worth listening to, but the man is not a great entertainer. Still, for fans of the film and the director this is a must.
Overall, what can I say. The Last of the Mohicans is one of my all time favorite movies. It’s a great adventure, romance and epic. It does the novel justice, but really is so much else than just a retelling of Cooper’s story. Michael Mann turned his vision into a period piece that manages to entertain and amaze, in fact a movie that you wish would actually be longer. You want to actually explore this overwhelming world they live in and discover what else might have been happening in the forests of the old frontier. The Last of the Mohicans is a great piece of cinema that finally arrives on a worthy home video release, even though they did not go to the greatest lengths presenting this in the utmost quality that one would wish for.