1992: The Last of the Mohicans
Directed by Michael Mann
Written by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe
Considering it’s essentially our creation myth, the Colonial period of our history has gotten pretty short shrift cinematically. A Wikipedia search for “American Revolutionary War films” turns up all of 24 results; World War II gets 513. You’ve got to go back to 2000’s The Patriot for the last big-screen depiction of our powdered wig and knicker era. It could be argued that, in recent years, the Tea Party and other conservative elements have done a better job of mythologizing our nation’s origins than any film could, but it’s still surprising that such a fertile, vital part of our history has been left virtually untouched by Hollywood.
Which goes a long way towards explaining why Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans made this list. I’ve always been fascinated by the Colonial era, so when that giant “1757” pops up on the screen, I’m in. Then along come all those majestic shots of what are supposed to be the Adirondacks (actually the Blue Ridge Mountains pulling stand-in duty) looking all pristine and unsettled, and Trevor Jones’ propulsive score kicks in, and I’m ready for some leatherstocking tales. The opening really does showcase two of the strongest elements of the film: Dante Spinotti’s amazing cinematography and the music by Jones and Randy Edelman (brought in to help Jones in the final post-production crunch). Both are crucial in conjuring up a sense of a country in its birthing pains, with a vast primal wilderness right on its doorstep that’s only grudgingly being tamed.
And standing astride that divide between civilization and wildness is Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye. Day-Lewis was coming off his first Oscar for My Left Foot, but this was arguably his first big movie star role, and he absolutely kills it. In the pre-Peter Jackson days of wishful thinking over a Lord of the Rings movie, this role made Day-Lewis pretty much everybody’s go-to pick to play Aragorn (he was actually offered the role by Jackson and turned it down; you’re welcome, Viggo Mortensen). He’s rugged, he’s handsome, he’s funny, he’s adventurous, he’s just a great big damn hero and his charisma is absolutely undeniable.
Which makes it all the more remarkable how Wes Studi damn near steals the movie out from under him. In what could have easily been another caricatured Native-American villain, Studi makes the Huron guide Magua an actual character. He’s not evil, he’s angry, with believable reasons and motivations that just happen to be at odds with the protagonists. And his role is a vital part of the film’s balance; this isn’t just a story of the struggle of the early English colonists trying to carve out a life in the wilderness, it’s the story of the natives who are watching that wilderness vanish, and their home along with it. Some, like Hawkeye’s adoptive family, greet the coming of the white man with a weary resignation, but Magua is full of fury at what he’s lost. Studi’s quiet intensity leaves such an indelible impression that when he’s given an almost tender moment late in the film, you feel a great sense of sadness that this could have been a good man had he not endured so much suffering.
And maybe that’s the hard part about trying to turn this period in our history into entertainment. Because, as inspiring as the story of our forefathers hewing out a nation can be, that nation came at the cost of one that already existed when those forefathers got here. Our rise is eternally linked to the fall of the Native Americans, and all the fireworks and parades and patriotism can’t completely erase that. It’s a subtext lurking underneath any film that takes on this era. The lines I quoted above that close out The Last of the Mohicans are a eulogy for Chingachgook’s slain son, but Mann makes it clear it’s also a eulogy for the America that had to pass away before it could become the America we know.