The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Last of the Mohicans (1992/USA/dir. Michael Mann) appeared at #56 on my original list.
What it is • Michael Mann, best known for his cool contemporary urban crime masterworks, stepped out of character in 1992 to adapt a 1936 film based on an 1826 novel set during a 1757 war. Sometimes a fish out of water just flops, but Last of the Mohicans shows that Mann can soar as well as swim. In the film, Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his adopted Mohican family guide Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) and several other English subjects through the wilderness in the midst of the French-Indian War- but the plot is essentially a framework for several stunning setpieces, none more astonishing than the climactic chase up a hill. That sequence begins with a noble self-sacrifice of a normally not very likable character, and ends with deadly combat between one of the heroes (but not the main one) and the main villain. More importantly, it is as good a primer on the use of montage, music, and movement in cinema as anything I know. The whole film is excellent, with explosive battles, smoldering romantic embraces, quiet moments of human connection, and breathtaking landscapes, but that particular moment - a moment that extends for nine tense, throbbing minutes - is sublime. Writing this entry, I paused to watch a clip online and had to stop myself before watching the whole thing again (I'm trying to be economical at present, and am no longer watching extended clips, let alone whole movies, before writing about my Favorites). No matter how many times I've seen The Last of the Mohicans, that ending always carries an incredible punch.
Why I like it •
I may have gotten ahead of myself and already explained my personal affection for the movie, but let me go into my history with it as well. I'm not sure there's any other film on this list that I saw for the first time the way I saw Mohicans - in a classroom, split over several sessions, as part of a U.S. History class when I was a sophomore in high school. God knows this is not the ideal way to view most movies, between the talkative classmates and the fact that (this was back in 2000) it was almost certain to be a pan-and-scan VHS copy chopping up the movie's beautiful widescreen vistas. But we were all captivated, and as I recall we forced the teacher to rewind the film when it was over, so we could rewatch the ending. (Later, the teacher would reward extra credit to a student who stood up in front of the class in a long-haired wig and re-enacted Hawkeye's "I will find you!" speech under the waterfall.) At first, I just considered the movie fun entertainment, a particularly well-done example of the bloody battles I enjoyed in all action movies. But the more I watched it the more I appreciated the incredible skill of what Mann and his collaborators had assembled, and as I listened to the soundtrack on its own, the more I recognized the depth of the emotion he had summoned - this was particularly true of the incredible "Promenatory" (originally written by Dougie MacLean to accompany an exhibition about the Loch Ness Monster!). I had the good fortune of seeing the director himself present a special cut of the movie at the Egyptian in Hollywood a few years ago, and while I don't remember what particular changes he had made to the original (which honestly works fine for me) it was great to see it on the big screen. Big or small, however, this is one hell of a movie.
How you can see it • Last of the Mohicans is available for blu-ray/DVD rental on Netflix and digital copies can be rented or purchased from these sites. In 2008, I paired the film with Easy Rider as part of a fanciful movement/music/montage double feature and a few years later I included a clip at 4:27 in "A Dark Dawn", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video series. Fair warning - the clip transitions directly into a clip from Malcolm X which includes the infamous video footage of Rodney King.
What do you think? • Is this, unusual as it is, Michael Mann's masterpiece - and if not, what is? Do you find the film's historical inaccuracies and American (and Native American) mythmaking to be distractions/stumbling blocks to your enjoyment? Have you read the book and seen other adaptations, and if so, how do you compare them?
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Yesterday: Casablanca (#57)
Tomorrow: Historias Extraordinarias (#55)