#468: Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans
A film about racial and cultural boundaries, the cycle of violence, and who really owns the New World
Initial release: 1992
Director: Michael Mann
Is there anything more absurd than two empires fighting over stolen land? The Seven Years’ War, considered by some historians to be a dress rehearsal for the world wars two centuries later, basically boils down to the British and French Empires having a dick-measuring contest, and dragging their respective colonies and much of the rest of Europe into it as well. The North American theatre of that war is referred to as the French and Indian war, the kind of moniker that tends to get thought up by the victors, as they get to center the conflict from their perspective, in this case the British against the French, with support from differing Native American tribes on either side. But what it really boiled down to was two European empires fighting over land that by right belonged to the very Native populations they subjugated, then tried to genocide, then just lived with.
The Last of the Mohicans, a modern-day remake of a 1936 adaptation of an 1826 novel, is a bit misleadingly titled, as the Mohicans’ descendants are very much still extant and living in Wisconson, in contradiction to the American national mood in the early 19th century that spawned the novel, a collective sense among whites that Native Americans were on the verge of extinction, if not already gone. Regardless, in spite of the main character being a white guy (a minor character in the novel,) Michael Mann, one of the preeminent mainstream auteur filmmakers of the 80s, seems to possess an understanding of the situation Native Americans faced in the mid-18th century: gradually pushed out of their ancestral homes by juggernaut empires who don’t even care about the very colonists who moved in, slowly exterminated over the course of centuries, and still doing their best to live in the remote expanses in which they find themselves, even as the Seven Years’ War threatens to sweep them up in the firestorm of violence.
From our vantage point in the future we understand that all this is happening in that dark prelude to the American Revolution, thus beginning a long period of history in which the predominant question, “who owns this country?” is the source of much conflict between white people (first the British versus the French, then the British versus the Colonials, then the ̶C̶̶̶o̶̶̶l̶̶̶o̶̶̶n̶̶̶i̶̶̶a̶̶̶l̶̶̶s̶̶̶ Americans versus each other) and yet nobody ever seems to ask the Native Americans —likely because they know what the answer would probably be.
But all this, as they say, is academic. Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans is, first and foremost, a testosterone-fueled war movie, but nestled in Mann’s own inimical naturalism, and cloaked in an unrelenting sense of doom, as the Revolution — and all the genocide and expansion that comes after it — is just around the corner. Daniel Day-Lewis, who in his role as the white adoptee of a Mohican trapper and his son serves as a mild subversion of the white savior trope (better exemplified in 1990’s excruciating Dances With Wolves) spends most of the film shirtless, or damn-near, all the more to seem appealing to female-audience-surrogate Madeleine Stowe, whose character Cora is thoroughly uninterested in her incel Redcoat friend (who, to further display the difference between his powdered wig and Day-Lewis’ tousled Michael Bolton haircut, throws a tantrum over being friendzoned, but by the end of the film pulls his head out of his ass for his one allotted heroic moment of self-sacrifice.)
Alongside Day-Lewis is Lakota activist-turned-actor Russell Means in his inaugural film role, and Eric Schweig, an Inuit/First Nations actor with a prolific filmography of bit parts and lesser-known films. Standing opposite them is Cherokee actor Wes Studi in one of the more compelling villains to ever grace film, an angry Huron by the name of Magua who desires vengeance upon the man who destroyed his family, a British general and Cora’s father, who more than any other character is the face of the British Empire, seeing the world in only his terms and hang anybody who has a different idea. Magua is probably the true centerpiece of this film, all simmering fury and expressions of granite; his arc ends the only way it could, falling victim to that same cycle of revenge. And though I made a little fun of Madeleine Stowe, her Cora at least gets to be more complex than most characters of her archetype, having her moment in the sun in a fiery argument with her father, and more than once managing to stage a rescue or two herself.
Anyone who’s seen The Keep knows Mann is a genius of the naturalistic style; his characters occupy a vast expanse of wilderness, an endless, beautiful void of rivers, forests, mountains. He’s careful to show the sheer size of the territory, both geographically and geometrically: columns of soldiers swallowed up by hundred-foot-tall forests, rivers so broad they’re nearly oceans, mountains old as time. It’s a world so vast that cinematographer Dante Spinotti can’t help but take the leash off the camera and set it free, creating a visual style that sets it far ahead of the competition in this particular genre.
And perhaps The Last of the Mohicans isn’t the worst movie in the world for Native representation, nevermind the interracial couple meeting annihilation in the film’s breathtaking final act; its Native characters, good and bad, are allowed to be human rather than just caricatures, given agency over their own arcs, far more than the arrogant imperialists who serve as the faces of the French and British Empires but, ultimately, must act to serve Empire, nothing more.