‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is a Michael Mann masterwork

As always, spoilers abound. No complaining.

Most people have a favorite movie. Fewer have a favorite director, and even fewer actually like most things their favorite director has made.

For me, that director is Michael Mann. From the emotionally shattering finale of Manhunter to the tiniest ingenious details in the first episode of Tokyo Vice, Mann is an artist who crafts every frame with purpose, which makes rewatching his films a delightful experience of finding new traces of beauty and intent.

But I’m not here to talk about Heat, which attracts film reviewers like mosquitos to a zapper. Not Miami Vice, either. Today, I want to focus on The Last of the Mohicans.

Mohicans isn’t exactly underrated (it’s sitting at a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, if the Tomatometer means anything to you). Rather, it’s mostly ignored, shelved in deference to Mann’s other works. It is rarely mentioned in retrospectives of his career, despite being the only Oscar-winning film in his oeuvre (for Best Sound).

So today, we’re going to talk about Mohicans — and only Mohicans

Daniel Day-Lewis and Michael Mann on the set of The Last of the Mohicans.

Mann on the frontier

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Hawkeye, the adopted son of aged Mohican patriarch Chingachgook (Russell Means, exuding a quiet calm that was a far cry from his real-life, headline-grabbing activism). Hawkeye’s stepbrother, Uncas, rounds out the family, which almost always appears in scenes together, an unusual but inspired choice that drives home how devoted these characters are to each other. It’s a choice that dates back to the original source material, James Fenimore Cooper’s series of novels about frontier life (though this is one case where I definitely do not recommend reading the books. I hacked my way through “Deerslayer” in high school, and I trust Mark Twain’s opinion as to the quality of the rest. In fact, the film specifically credits the screenplay for the 1936 film adaptation, rather than any of the novels).

While tracking a Huron war party during the early years of the French and Indian War, Hawkeye and family find themselves looking after the two daughters of British Colonel Munro. The daughters are essentially a pair of Jane Austen characters dropped into a violent warzone without the requisite mental or physical fortitude, though the eldest, Cora, proves more durable than the naïve, shell-shocked Alice. What follows is a struggle to keep the daughters alive, one that builds slowly over the course of the film until the finale explodes in a masterful chorus that represents some of the finest 10 minutes in filmmaking history.

I first saw the film as a young child, and I’ve found that the memories forged from that viewing draw special attention to the ways that Mann elevates material other directors might have made boring or rote. I will never forget how Magua, the supposedly Mohawk guide leading the daughters and their military escort through the woods, casually turns and walks against the flow of the march before burying his tomahawk in the neck of an unsuspecting soldier. As with everything in the film, this betrayal doesn’t simply “happen.” There is a build: we seem him turn, see the soldiers look slightly puzzled but completely oblivious, see Magua surreptitiously ready his tomahawk.

Magua just wants to bury the hatchet.

Though we don’t really understand Magua’s motivations until late in the film, this scene gives us an early window into his character beyond the barely-contained rage he expresses almost constantly. There is a theatricality to him, a tendency to delight in confusing his enemies. We see this again later, when his band of rogue warriors terrorizes a battalion of British troops before massacring them.

Speaking of massacres of British troops, one notable aspect of the film is that it does not take sides in the conflict (other than what must have been an irresistible urge to turn one of the British generals into an aristocratic oaf). I’ve found that when I bring up Mohicans in casual conversation, some people tend to remember it as the film that presents “the other side” of the conflict, as if portraying British soldiers massacred (repeatedly) by Huron is somehow in opposition to the wave of revisionist westerns and historical epics, still going strong at the time of release in 1992, that depicted the many crimes committed against native populations throughout America’s history.

Let’s be clear: Mohicans is not presenting “the British side” of the conflict. In fact, the film isn’t really about war in any meaningful sense. Rather, it’s about chaos, about personalities and histories that lead characters into inexorable conflict with each other. If there is a statement about war here, it’s that on the ground, wars are not about countries or politics but about people — people whose allegiances and motivations often have little or nothing to do with the war itself.

The British infantry is ambushed by Magua’s band of renegade Huron warriors.

That’s certainly the case for Magua, whose alliance with the French is purely a means by which to exact revenge on Colonel Munro for the murder of his family. The same goes for his status as an adopted Mohawk, which is simply happenstance. Intellectually and biologically, he is Huron, though even that is murkier than it seems: his vision of what it means to be Huron is twisted by his own tragic experiences and by his long absence from the tribe.

Hawkeye, on the other hand, has no interest in participating in the war and is dragged into it only because he wants to protect Munro’s daughters — specifically his love interest, Cora.

Sounds of silence

It should be clear by now that the plot is nothing spectacular or revolutionary. It’s Mann’s handling of the material that elevates it into a masterwork. Take, for example, the silent romance between Uncas and Alice, in which not a word is spoken onscreen between the characters, and yet — through only a few brief scenes — we understand their relationship and are heartbroken when, in the finale, Uncas is killed and Alice throws herself off a cliff after him, having lost the only thing keeping the trauma of her shell-shock at bay.

Uncas’ lifeless body winds down the cliffside like a snake, recalling the tattoos on his father’s face. Alice seems to fall with the grace of water, which has stained and grooved the cliff faces over millennia and flows with a mixture of beauty and brutal, unsympathetic force. Mann makes a point of repeatedly cutting to waterfalls, big and small, during the final sequence, as if to remind us that water flowed here before any of these characters were born and will flow long after they are gone.

Uncas, grievously wounded, gazes at Alice before his death at the hands of Magua.

I mentioned the film won an Oscar for Best Sound; the finale makes use of a stirring Celtic melody that repeats while gaining momentum throughout the sequence, meshing brilliantly with the visual motif of relentless, unstoppable water while also matching the increasingly frenzied pace of Hawkeye and Chingachgook as they race to rescue and avenge their loved ones. This is only one example of a score that seems to fit the film and its striking visuals perfectly, complementing rather than guiding our emotional reactions to the story.

This is all the more incredible when one discovers that Trevor Jones originally composed electronic pieces for the film, then had to come up with a brand new orchestral score in a mad dash when Mann decided he wanted something more traditional. That score had to be reworked again when the film was cut down to its 112-minute runtime, necessitating some additions from Randy Edelman. What could easily have been a rushed, haphazard mess turned out to be one of the most memorable film scores of the 1990’s.

So why, then, did the film win for Best Sound rather than Best Score? Well, the Academy does have a history of conflating and confusing different categories, but in addition to the more-than-deserving score, the film does make some other interesting sound choices. Most noticeably, it’s one of only a handful of modern films that does away with hokey sound effects for blades and hand-to-hand combat. Weapons, even sharp ones, make realistic thuds rather than squishy metallic noises, drawing attention to the weight and sheer brutality of the tools people use to kill each other.

Paradoxically, the other major sound choice is mostly a lack of sound. The score is a canvas against which Mann lays out his majestic visuals, and everything from dialogue to incidental sound effects often takes a back seat. And when there is a break in the score, it’s usually to emphasize — you guessed it — silence. That’s certainly a sound design choice, and it works great for the film, but in the end, I don’t think there is any real explanation for the Academy’s decision to honor sound design over the score.

Regardless, The Last of the Mohicans is a masterpiece, almost peerless in its seamless convergence of poetic visual storytelling and a complementary orchestral score. Though not everyone would agree with that assessment — The Washington Post’s Desson Howe branded it “the MTV version of gothic romance” and “the Cooper pulp of its day” in one of the most idiotic and superficial film reviews ever printed by a major newspaper — the film has mostly received the appreciation it deserves. But within the context of Mann’s career, it is a forgotten magnum opus, an overlooked departure from the gritty neo-noir for which he is better known. So let this article be a monument to the film’s rightful place as a standout accomplishment in a remarkable career. Don’t let this one fade into obscurity — dig it out and give it a watch.

Watch this movie. Or I will find you.