Sunday, August 15, 2010
#95 - The Last of the Mohicans
“The Last of the Mohicans” was released in 1992. It was the first big budget feature from director Michael Mann. It was very loosely based on the John Fennimore Cooper novel, but actually is closer to the 1936 Randolph Scott film. The movie is set in 1757, three years into the French and Indian War. Although the action takes place in upstate New York, it was actually filmed mostly in North Carolina. The production used 1,000 Native American actors and extras. Mann had a 20 acre frontier farm, a Huron village, and a replica of a British fort built. The director’s obsessive quest for authenticity was matched by his star Daniel Day-Lewis who completely immersed himself in his role. Part of his preparation involved a “colonial boot camp” experience in the backwoods. Mann used a respected authority named Mark Baker to vet the film. Baker is an expert on frontier life, Indians, and weaponry. Mann provided him with a copy of the script and in most cases made changes suggested by Baker. The movie was a box office success and critically acclaimed. It was awarded an Oscar for Sound.
Three men run through the woods, chasing who knows what. Hawkeye (Day-Lewis) stops, takes aim, and kills a deer, thus establishing that he is not only a frontiersman, but also a crack shot. His companions are his adopted father Chingachcook (played by the famous Indian activist Russell Means) and step-brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) of the Mohican tribe which means he is not your typical colonist. They stop at a frontier farm where they are welcomed warmly, implying that Hawkeye is living between two worlds. The opening also indicates that some Indians are “good”.
The British authorities are recruiting colonial militia to reinforce Fort William Henry which is being threatened by the French and their Indian allies. The British are arrogant and insist that the colonists owe it to their king to serve. The militia get a promise that if their homes are in danger, they will be allowed to leave. Spoiler alert: they won’t.
Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice Munro (Jodhi May) are being escorted to be reunited with their father Colonel Munro who is in command of Fort William Henry. They are chaperoned by a haughty British officer named Maj. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington). He has proposed to Cora, but she wants to remain just friends. They are led through the forest by an Indian scout named Magua (Wes Study wearing a face that tells you immediately that he is a villain). Hawkeye’s trio are heading to Kentucky when they pick up signs of a war party and on following it come upon the ambush of Duncan’s party. The scenery is awesome and the violence intense (but not graphic) as Hawkeye saves Cora from Magua and they rescue the significant characters (Duncan, Cora, and Alice) – too bad if you are just a common British soldier! The fighting realistically portrays what happened to Braddock in the Wilderness in that volley firing is not effective against an Indian ambush in the woods.
The survivors arrive at the frontier home from the opening scene to find it burned out and everyone dead. In a moment of authenticity, Hawkeye insists they leave the bodies unburied because burying them would give away that they had been there.
Next we have the standard campfire, getting to know you scene. Surprise, Cora dislikes Hawkeye. Spoiler alert: that will change. She asks him why anyone would want to live on a farm in the feral wilderness. He tells her that many backwoodsmen had been indentured servants who want to own their own land and not be beholding to anyone. A French-led war party approaches but turns away when they encounter a sacred Indian burial ground. It turns out that unlike other movies where passing through a burial ground is certain doom for whites, they can also protect you!
They arrived at the fort and it is under an 18th Century siege. Fort William Henry was reconstructed using historical documents and the effort shows. The scene accurately recreates the various elements of a siege-- the trenches, flares, fascines, even the little details like covering the touchhole of a cannon with sheepskin. They sneak into the fort at night. A great scene with Oscar winning sound effects.
Cora is reunited with her father and he is informed that Indians are raiding colonial farmsteads. He refuses to allow the militia to leave. ( A tough, but wise decision that is portrayed as an inhumane act of perfidy by the hissable British upper class twit. ) Meanwhile in French General Montcalm’s camp we learn that Magua has a grudge against Munro because of the destruction of his village, the killing of his children, and the loss of his wife. He vows to kill Munro and his daughters to wipe out their bloodline.
A courier needs to be sent to Albany for reinforcements so Duncan leads a diversion of a unit firing volleys while Hawkeye shows his mastery of the Kentucky rifle by picking off Indians trying to tomahawk the fleet-footed courier.
Hawkeye meets with Munro ( called George in the movie when actually named Edmund – why? ) He can not convince Munro to let the militia go home to defend their families. Munro threatens punishment for sedition. This accurately reflects the British army’s attitude toward colonial forces. Do as we say, no questions asked.
Munro and Montcalm meet to discuss surrender. After being assured no relief is coming and guaranteed safe passage to Albany, Munro agrees to abandon the fort the next day. That night Montcalm meets with Magua and assuages his anger at the terms by telling him “I can’t break the terms” (wink, wink)
Magua is hot on their trail and it is obvious he will find them and their powder is wet meaning they will not be able to put up much of a fight so Hawkeye makes the tough decision to survive so he can rescue Cora. “You stay alive, no matter what occurs. I will find you”. He jumps into the waterfall. Cora, Alice, and Duncan are captured. You can guess what happens to the expendables who are with them.
Uncas chases after Magua to rescue Alice ( who he is ,of course, in love with ), but in a surprise to movie audiences everywhere, Magua kills him and throws his body over a cliff. In a poignant moment, the Bambi-like Alice jumps off the cliff joining him. The scene is made more powerful by the sparse dialogue. Actions do the talking. This has all been witnessed by Hawkeye and Chingachgook from afar. It’s revenge time! Chingachgook comes raging in like a charging grizzly bear as Hawkeye clears the path with his rifle. The penultimate battle is shockingly brief as the grieving father quickly dispatches one of the great villains of filmdom. Way to flout movie conventions!
THE FINAL SCENE
Chingachgook and Hawkeye lay Uncas to rest. Pop is now “the last of the Mohicans”. He predicts that “one day there will be no more frontier … , but once we were here.”
Action - 10
Acting - 10
Accuracy - 9
Realism - 10
Plot - 10
Overall - 10
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?
Of course. Cora is a strong female character and something of an 18th Century feminist. She stands up to her father, finds true love, survives many perils, and looks lovely throughout! Then throw in Daniel Day-Lewis as the protagonist. What’s not to like?
For a movie based on a novel, the movie is actually very accurate. Credit has to go to Mann for going beyond the call of duty in making the movie authentic right down to the moccasins. It was interesting to read Baker’s comments on the original script and see how Mann listened to him on most of his complaints. And the ones where Mann vetoed the suggestions were all sensible digressions from historical accuracy. Having an anal director may be hell on the actors and the financers, but it makes for a wonderful movie for us hard core war movie buffs.
The historical centerpiece of the movie is the siege of Fort William Henry and it is handled admirably. I know of no other movie that so accurately depicts 18th Century siege warfare. The reconstruction of the fort was well worth the time, effort, and funding. You will learn something from this movie unless you are already an expert. The best war movies take you back in time to experience what it was like from the safety of your theater seat or recliner. This also applies to the frontier farm and the Huron village.
The movie accurately portrays the interaction and customs of three groups – the frontiersmen, the Indians, and the British army. In particular, the Native Americans are not all “noble savages” or “bloodthirsty heathens”. A majority of them are anti-colonists, but that is as it should be. If you think about it, Magua has legitimate reasons for revenge. Portrayed by Mel Gibson in one of Hollywood’s many revenge pics, he would be the hero.
With that said, there are two major inaccuracies in the tale. First, Montcalm’s character is unfairly maligned by implying he condoned the ambush. Note the year the movie premiered and add the fact that he was French and you can figure no American would complain about his portrayal. Second, in reality only the rear of the retreating column was attacked. It consisted of mainly civilians. Between 70 and 180 were killed. None of them was Munro, who escaped in the forest. Obviously, the column was not attacked because one Indian wanted revenge for his family. In fact, the Indians were upset that the French lenient terms had deprived them of the anticipated spoils of the battle.
The rest of the plot is based on a novel, so there was no person named Nathaniel Poe (Hawkeye) and I doubt we will ever know who the last of the Mohican tribe was. Speaking of the source, Cooper’s book is justifiably famous, but does not hold up well as literature. Mann’s plot actually improves on the novel. That is something that cannot be said of most movies based on famous novels. All the changes Mann made are for the best. And he made a lot of changes! Many of the characters who died in the book, survive in the movie and vice versa. Some of the romantic attachments are different ( e.g. in the book, Hawkeye falls in love with Alice ). Students in American Literature class who are assigned this book - do not watch the movie instead!
This is a magnificent movie. It combines an interesting plot with great acting and a real concern for historical accuracy. Kudos to Michael Mann for getting the little details right. Let’s face it, even war movie nuts do not care if the moccasins are circa 1757. However, when a director insists on accuracy down to the ground and cares if anyone will notice, you get a better movie for purists.
Also commendatory was the tampering with the plot of the novel. I admit I get upset when a nonfiction source is changed to Hollywoodize a movie, but I do not think it is hypocritical to endorse what Mann and the screenwriters have done. Especially since most literary critics are not big fans of the novel. As long as you get the historical facts mostly right, why not make the tale batter?
The movie also looks good. The scenery is breathtaking. Parts of North Carolina really do look like the frontier of colonial America. The score is perfect. Interestingly, the music was done by two composers separately – Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman. That might have been a dysfunctional situation, but you can’t tell from the finished product.
So here we have a movie with great acting, a moving score, realistic sound, romance, action, suspense, violence, and historical accuracy. Why is it not ranked higher than #95? I cannot get into the minds of Armchair General’s panel of experts, but I can guess they may have the same problem I have with ranking it really high. Is it really a war movie? Certainly more than “Ben Hur” and it does fit my definition for a “war movie”, but since it fits better into other categories like historical epic or action romance, I cannot rank it as one of the great war movies. After all, would you ever find a copy of “Last of the Mohicans” in the war novels section of a book store? However, as a movie that could be described as a war movie, it is better than a vast majority of the movies on the list.
Up next: #94 - "A Bridge Too Far"