The Last of the Mohicans (1992) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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A shade over ten years ago, the most I would have had to say about Michael Mann's films is, "Collateral was cool."  An accurate statement?  Sure, but one that I now feel does disservice to the rich texture of his films.  This didn't come about quickly as Manhunter, Heat, Miami Vice, and all his other films - except The Last of the Mohicans which remained unseen - went into and out of my brain leaving so little impression that I could only recall Manhunter as that absurd film with the weird "In A Gadda Da Vida" rampage.

Enter Blackhat, the 2015 thriller so poorly received it barely made 25% of its budget back with the critical reception about as frosty.  I saw, then felt, something special in Blackhat.  The oily textures and synesthetic gunfights made a deep impression on my skin as I watched Chris Hemsworth's Nicholas Hathaway (no relation to myself) find his way through the conspiratorial darkness.  I was so impressed a nagging doubt entered and would not leave my mind resulting in a question - have I been wrong about Mann this whole time?

Yes, I was wrong.  Manhunter chilled me my second time through, the maze of concrete corridors and pillars that were supposed to lead Will away from the monstrous Hannibal only lead to panic, and the "In A Gadda Da Vida" sequence an expulsion of tragic violence birthed from abuse and let loose by a sadist.  Even Miami Vice, which had editing so confusing it was easy for me to think that Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell were enjoying a shower together, improved considerably.  I saw men trying desperately to make sense of their immediate surroundings, grabbing what facile pleasures they can from touch, and getting into firefights as uncertain as the conspiracy surrounding them.

CollateralCollateral's still cool, and I look forward to my rewatch of that so I can hopefully drag myself out of that shallow (if fun and accurate) opinion.

This left one glaring spot in my evaluation of Mann's films, The Last of the Mohicans, a film I was terrified was going to yield space to the mystic/noble savage trope recently deployed in The Revenant.  One scene and line of dialogue from Chingachgook (Russell Means) worried me, but quickly gave way to a grounded sense of his faith that's no different than my mother saying a quick prayer before eating any meal.  Chingachgook has the first and last lines of dialogue in The Last of the Mohicans, and the true heartbreak in-between lies not with poster star Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) or his love Cora (Madeleine Stowe).  They get the big lines and most overtly dramatic moments, but they're speaking for the ones who choose not to - whose passion and connection plays in the power of the greatest silent films.

I speak of Uncas (Eric Schweig) and Alice (Jodhi May).  Their romance, expressed through tender touch and reassuring glances, is what gives The Last of the Mohicans its transcendental quality.  Hawkeye and Cora's romance makes for a fine bit of passion, but Uncas and Alice's wordless connection is where the magic lay.  I'm not going to be doing a typical review for this because my relationship with Mann's films has changed so much that watching The Last of the Mohicans is the closest I've had to a pure spiritual experience since Upstream Color.

To that end, here is the story of Chingachgook's love for Uncas, who loves and is loved by Alice, and how Mann avoids tropes of the mystic/noble savage to ground their romance in bravery and tragedy.  It's a romance, not just of the man/woman variety, but in a father's love for his son and son's love for his father.

Let's begin.

I realize this will be difficult to make out, but it's important in establishing Uncas' skills in contrast to Hawkeye's.  The opening scene shows Hawkeye traversing the wilderness like a hard obstacle course and Mann's camera follows suit - ducking and weaving along with Hawkeye's movements.  Uncas, as seen in the next movement, is more adept to the wilderness, blending into the shadow and moving more swiftly than Hawkeye is capable of.  There's no mysticism here, just an athletic comparison between Hawkeye, who is capable but disruptive, and Uncas as someone more comfortable with the terrain.An early example of the kind of shadowplay that I adored in Mann's pre-digital era that he'd come to embrace with Blackhat.  Uncas' positioning is crucial here, as he is silently supervising Hawkeye as he lines up his shot.  Where, and toward what, Uncas is looking at is crucial in understanding the dynamic between he and Alice later. Here he knows where the gunshot will best be spent, and he patiently waits as Hawkeye tracks his prey.

The introduction of Chingachgook also triggered some alarms for me.  On an first pass it read as the kind of pseudo-mystic speak that haunts the mystic/noble savage trope.  What this is really doing is setting up the end of The Last of the Mohicans, when Chingachgook kills someone he could have seen as a brother, and the heavy solemnity in his voice and expression will be revisited by the end.I adore this shot, which occurs right after Chingachgook finishes his prayer for the slain deer.  Uncas is giving his own sign of respect for the fallen and, setting up something important about him throughout, that he will not speak if the necessary words are already floating in the air.  This is a man of no wasted motions, no unnecessary risks, and his gestures communicate the exact same respect for the living and dead as that of his father.This is when I started to realize Mann was not going to fall prey to the mystic/noble savage trope.  Hawkeye is enjoying himself in the background while Chingachgook and Uncas share words with their frontier colonial friend.  There's no overt odd to the tragedy to come for native Americans, instead Mann shows respect for the power and authority they wield at this moment.Chingachgook's love of Uncas also shines through in this quick shot that takes place during the meeting.  He still holds out hope that he and his son will not be the last of their tribe, smiling in quiet reflection on the pride for Uncas when Uncas plays with a child after Hawkeye jokes about finding Uncas a wife.

Child: Then you can have a boy like me.

Uncas: Never. You are too strong. Turn me old too fast.

I like the self-awareness Uncas has for his passion.  Yes, he's joking with the child that being a father to one as strong as he would wear him down.  But we'll see that this passion Uncas has for love and family ultimately lays the tragic foundation for the end.

I love these two shots for different reasons while they both play into Mann's rejection of the mystic/noble savage.  In the first, Chingachgook is pointed and strong - not leaving his weapon behind as he reasons with the British forces seeking to conscript the frontiersmen for a coming battle against the French.  The threat of violence is there but subdued as Russell Means lets his remaining hand, strong voice, and one hell of a poker face lay down just what the British can expect from his friends and neighbors.

The second is a great bit of humor.  Uncas holds firm to his practice of speaking only when necessary but can't help but chuckle when Hawkeye tells off the British authorities.  This does wonders at cutting the mystic/noble savage trope off almost completely as it's the background players posed ornamentally (big points for the man on the right who can't think of what to do with his implement so he takes the position of a scarecrow.)

In another important pair of shots, we're introduced to Alice.  Her connection to Uncas is more contextual than overt.  Much like Uncas is more comfortable moving through the wilderness than Hawkeye, Alice is also more at home in the expected mannerisms of British custom.  It remains to be seen how Alice will react to the different set of frontier customs but here she allows her hand to be gently guided to the table where Cora sits in silence after rejecting a proposal.  The way Alice allows her hand to be guided is crucial to how and when she allows herself to be touched.  She's accepting this kind of custom, not being forced into it, and will later show acceptance of a different kind in relation to Uncas.

Including this here because I just love this shot.  It doesn't really tie in with Chingachgook, Uncas, or Alice but it does work into an ongoing theme with Mann's work.  Society and custom are fine for keeping a day-to-day regimen but the true power of nature is hiding in plain sight.  Mann would later return to a similar image in Collateral when a coyote interrupts a quiet street before Collateral's climactic fight.These three shots begin the shifting relationships between the British and the native population.  At first the shadows of the war party led by Magua (Wes Studi - who I could write a whole other piece on) are a terrifying unseen threat.  Shades of Platoon are scattered around the firefight as the shadows prove deadly in swiftly dealing with the soldiers escorting Cora and Alice.

Once again, it's Chingachgook's strong leadership that allows him, Hawkeye, and Uncas to come out from the shadows.  Hawkeye interrupts Maj. Duncan's (Steven Waddington) attempt to kill Chingachgook (a great line here as Hawkeye slaps Duncan's gun away, "In case your aim's any better than your judgment").  Mann's longshot of Chingachgook's kill emphasizes Chingachgook's physical effort magnificently, establishing the space his weapon needs to cover while giving a hint toward the physicality of Means' performance to come.

The last is a transition from the first.  Where once there were threatening shadows blasting into their group now stands three men responsible for their safety.  It's also no longer Cora shielding Alice as Maj. Duncan fires into darkness, but Alice being the first one to step forward and take note of the visitors.  Cora is strong protecting Alice, Maj. Duncan is strong fighting those he feels are inferior, while Alice finds herself drawn to the group immediately.

This sequence of two shots, the first direct action Uncas has with Alice, are remarkably gentle considering the circumstances.  Uncas shoos the horses away to keep their tracks light and when Alice protests he takes her hands gently.  The look they share, the way her hands are gripping him instead of the reverse, are as romantically charged as any of the coming scenes with Hawkeye and Cora.

The second is a remarkable inversion of the male gaze so often employed in cinema.  We see Uncas in his full dignified strength, sparing some of the few words he speaks in The Last of the Mohicans, as Alice reluctantly allows herself to be drawn toward Cora.  The women seem to glide in this scene, both attracted to something about these men but not yet articulating what.  Alice and Uncas will never have the chance to put their feelings into words like Hawkeye and Cora, but Cora's embrace of Uncas' hands and reluctant float away speak the, "I will find you," to come.

This is about when I succumbed to the silent beauty of The Last of the Mohicans.  Words are sparse to nonexistent between Alice and Uncas, but both support each other silently from afar. Uncas watches Alice, divorced from the mannered customs of her British existence, take to the rapid dangers of his life willingly and without assistance.  His gaze is not one of voyeurism, but of respect and affection.

It's a gaze she returns in kind while witnessing a different kind of romance.  In recent years we've started to distance ourselves from brotherly love, between friends or family, with terms like "bromance".  As Uncas watched in admiration and respect of Alice scaling his territory, she in turn watches Uncas' tenderness.  Again, there are no words, just a rare shot of Uncas' touch as he mourns the dead and allows Hawkeye to comfort him.  This is brotherly love, the kind we can see between friends who are unashamed to call their affection what it is, and Alice can't look away.

Alice's confident gaze is another aspect of The Last of the Mohicans that hints at the happy ending she should have had.  Cora frequently panics, looks away when she can't take the reality of the tragedy unfolding, but in moments where Uncas is there to provide an example Alice is unyielding in her confidence.

Before the tragedy is set into motion, Mann provides this excellent shot pairing cementing the attraction along with Chingachgook's support for his son.  I'm not one to think specifically about the technical know-how of matching eyelines, but this one's completely necessary.  Col. Edmundo Munro (Maurice Roëves) is staring down Hawkeye while Alice's visual target is not as clear until we get the opposite picture.

Uncas is returning Alice's gaze, the two still connecting even with the tension in the room.  Then there's Chingachgook, alternating between his concern for his son and also keeping his eye on Col. Munro.  When Uncas makes a point of no return choice in the climax I think of this moment when Uncas and Alice's attraction is so evident that Chingachgook begins to understand what his son is going through.

Their attraction makes a strong imprint on Chingachgook, but Chingachgook will not forget his family.  He still defends Hawkeye without understanding why his white son is being taken prisoner and, during a last ditch attempt to escape, he stops to help Alice through another ambush to bring her to safety.

I have no doubt that casual or lightly inattentive viewers might miss why Chingachgook would stop to help Alice.  The key is his acknowledgement of their attraction during the tense negotiations in the British fort.  Chingachgook's effort to save Alice here shows a different kind of love than when he lets Uncas go.

Which leads to what, for me, is the most heartbreaking moment of tenderness in The Last of the Mohicans.

In my brief time researching The Last of the Mohicans, I frequently came across this beautiful sun-kissed shot of Hawkeye and Cora embracing.  She clings his hand for warmth after sharing a passionate kiss.  This is the fantasy, that these two might escape and live a life together free from the conflict.

Uncas and Alice's embrace is more tragic.  They have never, and will never, be as close as they are when she seeks his comfort during a moment of respite behind a waterfall.  Mann emphasizes this, eschewing the cleaner slow-motion of earlier action sequences to a stuttered look at their embrace.  The stuttered, half-caught image of the two beats down visually with the same intensity of the waterfall providing them temporary safety.  It's as though the two realize this may be it, the stuttering frame their attempt at remembering what one another feels like before facing the seemingly inevitable.

Then it comes.  Alice, Cora, and Maj. Duncan are captured.  Alice is released into Magua's custody, Maj. Duncan is burned alive, Cora and Hawkeye are free to go, and Uncas watches with Chingachgook.

One last moment of tenderness among men.  Uncas is Uncas to the end, letting his firm embrace of his father's shoulder speak for the responsibility he is going to take on himself.  It echoes Hawkeye's embrace of Uncas earlier when Uncas grieved their murdered friends.  Uncas is preparing his father for a death he is all but certain is coming, and Chingachgook - recognizing the connection between Alice and Uncas from earlier scenes - lets him go.

What happens next was already predicted by Cora and Hawkeye, using words they thought would apply to their situation but instead narrate the fates of Alice and Uncas.  As Uncas charges to save Alice, I will be playing a bit loose with the exact order of the shots to illustrate what I mean.

Cora: You've done everything you can do, save yourself.

Hawkeye: No matter how long it takes,

Hawkeye: no matter how far

Hawkeye: I will find you.

May's performance when Uncas finds her, and Magua kills him, is another quiet passionate shift that stands atop all the other performances in The Last of the Mohicans.  I am tearing up writing this, as there is no finer fusion of soundtrack, performance, and visuals than what happens in this moment.  Alice, broken, becomes Alice, defiant.  Master of her own destiny, able to exist in her culture and showing great promise for living in Uncas', makes her choice.In the most tragic shot of The Last of the Mohicans, Mann dispatches any lingering idea that the audience might have that this is a story of mystic/noble savages.  Uncas makes his choice for love, his flesh and blood body can only take so much, and while he is able to keep the promise Hawkeye spoke of Uncas was not long for this world.  There is no spiritual uplift, no romanticized view of Uncas and Alice's bodies like Romeo and Juliet.  There's only the hard truth, that these were two people who could have let their affections flourish if things were only a little different.  Now there they are, bodies embracing in death like they could only do once in life.

Then the cycle is complete.  Chingachgook, wracked with grief and anger, charges into Magua's remaining forces.  Chingachgook does not forget himself, and while he does not say those words he spoke to the deer after killing it in the opening scenes his pitied look at Magua speaks the same.

We're sorry to kill you, Brother.

Chingachgook's voice brought us into this world and he leads us out.  He grieves not just for the loss of his son, but also the glimpse of his son as a father that he saw so long ago, the love his son could have for another woman, and his own need to let go.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe may have the top billing for The Last of the Mohicans, but their story is one that - under Mann's craft - makes this film great.  What makes it transcendent is Mann's empathy to the attraction that is snuffed out before it had a chance to exist.  We too often pay attention to the foreground, the pretty white people who get the bulk of the lines and appear on posters.  Mann did not wish to follow either the book or the 1936 adaptation of the same name.  This is to his tremendous benefit, ridding both sources of their Eurocentric views on the frontier, and letting the true tragedy play out with the strength of the great silent films.

This is what makes The Last of the Mohicans transcendent.  This is why I still cry thinking of Uncas and Alice's only embrace.  This is why I hope to never misjudge an artist of Mann's caliber again, and I'm grateful I was able to grow enough as a critic to recognize the greatness he brought into this world.

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Posted by Andrew

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  1. Spectacular post. I absolutely love this movie. The final act accompanied by only the score with little words is so brilliant…you hardly see something like that recreated so well in today’s era.

  2. Alice & Uncas characters are more than Cora & Nathaniel. They deserved a happing ending. I would like to watch their deleted scenes in the movie. Eric Schweig and Jodhi May were disapointed about it

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