“The first American hero”
This movie is very well balanced. When I say that, what I really mean is this – it is excellent in all respects: story, casting, performances, direction, musical soundtrack and cinematography. The story is adapted from the 1936 screenplay used to make an earlier black and white movie based on the James Fennimore Cooper novel of the same name. However, it isn’t really a remake. It is a notably original work, one of the first in the recent wave of historical movies. It is also one of the few films that is not a movie musical in which a melodic soundtrack plays as significant a role as the visuals.
The film begins with text announcing the date as 1757 and the place as the American Colonies. “It is the 3rd year of the war between England and France for possession of the continent. Three men, the last of a vanishing people, are on the frontier west of the Hudson River.” The intro text disappears and the credits begin to roll while the magnificently stirring theme which dominates the musical soundtrack is introduced as the camera shows the fog draped hills of the beautiful river valley. Action starts with Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) dressed in rough clothing and carrying his flintlock running through the verdant forest. Uncas (Eric Schweig), his adopted brother, is also running with him. Carrying up the rear is Chingachgook (Russell Means) the father of the two young men. (We’ll learn later that Hawkeye was the “Indian name” given to Nathaniel Poe by Chingachgook when he adopted him after his family was killed in a frontier raid. Nathaniel Poe is a “modernization” of Cooper’s original “Natty Bumppo.”)
The brothers pause and Hawkeye raises his long gun as their quarry is now displayed: a large elk crashing through the undergrowth. Hawkeye fires hitting the elk which falls. The three hunters approach their kill as Chingachgook honors the elk by noting its courage, strength and speed. He speaks in his native tongue as subtitles translate to English.
The scene shifts to a log cabin and the dwellers within: a group of men and women apparently eating supper after dusk. Their dogs bark catching their attention and causing the men to grab their powder horns and flintlocks to take aim through the cabin door. Outside someone hails John Cameron (Terry Kinney) the cabin’s owner, who tells his wife Alexandra (Tracey Ellis) to set three more places. As children run to greet the newcomers (the hunters from the prior scene), greetings, news and pleasantries are exchanged among the friends. The Camerons have another guest: Jack Winthrop (Edward Blatchford), there intending to raise the colonial militia of New York for battle against the French on the side of England.
The next day the people of the area gather and exchange news. The Mohawk commit to fight against the French because they have brought Huron and Ottawa warriors to the Mohawk land. A mounted Redcoat thanks the Mohawk leader and challenges others to join in the fight against the French. When the colonials ask about defending their homes and families while they are at the English fort, the officer responds that they should fight for “King and country.” Hawkeye responds that the Redcoat should: “Do what you want with your own scalp and not be tellin’ us what to do with ours.” The officer asks “You call yourself a patriot, and loyal subject to the Crown?” To which Hawkeye replies: “I do not call myself subject to much at all.” This earns amused assent from many in the crowd. Jack Winthrop speaks of going to Albany to get terms from General Webb, the commander of the English army there.
The scene changes to a detachment of mounted Redcoats and horse drawn carriage which is carrying Maj. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) to Albany to meet with Gen. Webb. He enters as the colonial militia is meeting with the General. Although his subordinates are not inclined to bargain (instead threatening impressment), Gen. Webb commits to allowing militia members leave to defend their homes if they are attacked. Maj. Heyward is to escort the daughters of Colonel Munro (Maurice Roëves) to Fort William Henry where he will serve under the Colonel’s command. Coming forward from the shadows is Magua (Wes Studi) who will guide them with a company of troops to the fort.
Duncan meets Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) and her sister Alice (Jodhi May) at the Patroon’s house. While they have tea, Duncan proposes marriage to Cora, but her first response is to decline since her feelings do not go beyond friendship. Duncan persuades her to withhold final judgment, hoping that the weight of influential opinion will help him to win her affections. Alice joins them expressing excitement about their coming journey’s prospects for adventure. On that journey, as they move through a deep wood, Magua betrays the English travelers to a war party of Hurons. They are saved by Hawkeye, Uncas and Chingachgook who come upon the tracks of the war party in their own travel through the forest.
That is enough to introduce the main characters and set the scene for the primary events of the film, whose story tells of the frequent treachery of many who serve the State in the military fighting its wars. The events surrounding the story are based in historical fact. The movie also demonstrates how frontiers breed independence and self reliance in those who live on them. In addition, The Last of the Mohicans is also a passionate love story and a tale of brotherhood with the triumph of the personal over the machinations of empire. The accompanying music is truly outstanding, bringing as much to the movie as any of the major characters. If you enjoy historical films, especially those based in the American Revolutionary period, with individual independence occupying center stage, I believe you will enjoy this film. It is one of the best of that type that I have seen.
VHS Old Version