Daniel Day Lewis now star’s in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster “Lincoln,” but two decades ago he played a another, younger example of the best of those bred on the American Frontier, in Michael Mann’s 1992 film “The Last of the Mohicans.”
This was already old story, based on the 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper, and set on the then-frontier of 1757 upstate New York. As Cora Munro (Madeline Stowe, managing a wonderful English accent) says in the film, “The world is on fire.” The French and British Empires are at war, and need the help of their Indian and Colonial American allies to be able to fight.
On the periphery of this conflict hunts Chingachgook (Russell Means), the last chief of the Mohican tribe, with his son Uncas (Eric Schweig), and white adopted son Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis.) They glide, rather than move through the forest, as opposed to the clockwork-like march of the red coated British and white coated French. They are as if ghosts, because like the novel, one of the themes of the movie is disappearance of the Indians from this land.
Although the occupation of the land is the reason for the conflict, it has little to do with the motives of its characters. Hawkeye and his adopted family enter the war to protect Cora Munro and her sister Alice (Jodhi May), when they are about to be murdered by a Huron war party, lead by the revenge twisted Magua (Wes Studi.)
Hawkeye then agrees to escort the sisters to their father, Colonel Edmund Munro (Maurice Roeves), the commander of the besieged British garrison at Fort William Henry. Along the way, the discovery of the massacre of Colonial American families by other Huron war parties brings Hawkeye conflict caused by his deep sense of honor.
It is this assured, quite natural sense of honor and justice that Lewis brings to his character that makes the film so appealing, if at times old fashioned (much of the dialogue is similar to that of the 1936 movie version of the novel.) Hawkeye’s certainty is a natural one. He accepts his feelings, like he does the rest of the world that he inhabits.
The strength of Hawkeyes character, together with the visually wonderful extended action scenes, means, with the notable exception of his enemy Magua, the other characters in the film have little chance to grow, or shine. Uncas’ affection for Alice Munro for example, is left unspoken and unrequited. It is only at the end of the movie that Chingachgook is at the center of the action and narrative.
Here though, Mann one last time revels in, and reminds us of the natural beauty that now, more than two centuries later, is more distant from our homes than ever. It reminds us of what we have lost and, as a once resident of Alaska for more than five years, it left me with an ache in my heart, so see such pristine wilderness again.