The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans

It’s a peculiar experience to see a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis where he either wasn’t the most interesting actor or didn’t play the most interesting role. In most of his other films, he disappears into the character. He was Bill the Butcher. He was Daniel Plainview. He was Abraham Lincoln. In The Last of the Mohicans, he’s just a good actor making the most of a dull role. For the first time, I’ve seen him give a performance that I can easily see being done by another actor with half his talent.

More fascinating than his Hawkeye is that of the English Major, Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington). He gives off an aura like Javert from Les Miserables. Not as cold, but just as firm regarding his strict principles, patriotism and adherence to duty. In spite of this, there are scenes that subtly hint at his turn of heart and unlikely sympathy. That internal conflict is what makes him among the more interesting aspects of this movie, and it culminates in a surprising turn during the film’s climax.

Another thing peculiar about The Last of the Mohicans is it being a historical epic in Michael Mann’s filmography. As a director who typically excels in action-thrillers, it’s curious to see him weave together multiple dramatic narratives set against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War. He not only tackles the conflict between England and France, but also the struggles of the local militia, a Native American’s quest for revenge and, of course, a love story. Interestingly enough, he succeeds in telling most of these tales, which brings me to the oddest thing about the film.

For the first time in a Michael Mann movie, the action sequences are what left me bored and uninterested. A lot of it was messy, unfocused and fell flat as if the efficacy of his stylized direction gets overwhelmed by the grandiose scope of this wartime period piece. He nails the beautifully sweeping cinematography, costumes and production design needed for such an epic, but for Mann’s standards it feels safe. The most compelling scenes turn out to be the ones that have very little action going on. The best ones in particular include one where the French & English army negotiate the latter’s terms for surrender, one at the end involving talks with the chief of the a native American tribe, and one in particular with Madeline Stowe stretching her acting chops as she argues fiercely against the charges of sedition against her lover.

On a narrative level, it’s a story layered with multiple conflicts, both external and internal, all handled very deftly. That’s not to say that it’s without fault, as I personally could have done without any of the romantic angles, which is – I’ve come to learn – something that Mann doesn’t do very well. Yet even then, the narrative of The Last of the Mohicans is easily much more engaging that anything else about it, which is not something I thought I’d ever say about a Michael Mann film.

Rating: C+ (average)