I’ve never read Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, but there have apparently been many movie adaptations of it. The one I saw, the 1992 version starring Daniel Day-Lewis, was apparently more based on the 1936 version than the book…or the 1920 version, which has “historical significance” according to the Library of Congress.
Confused? Don’t worry, that has nothing to do with the content anyway.
I’m going to start off by saying this movie had a very Lord of the Rings feel to it, with the same sort of landscapes, siege battles, and OP heroes. There’s even a tracking scene that’s very reminiscent of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli’s trek across Rohan in The Two Towers. …Or rather, Peter Jackson must have been inspired by The Last of the Mohicans. It thus felt very familiar, despite having been made ten years before the Lord of the Rings movies, themselves nearly ten years old now. (Yes, they are that old. Wow.)
The setting is what we know in the US as the French and Indian War, which is really just part of the larger Seven Years War that happened in Europe. If, like me, you’ve forgotten much of your American history (sorry, Mr. Rosado), or if you’re not from America, you might need a reminder of what’s going on: the French began pushing south into the British-claimed areas of North America, and the British and British colonists took up arms against them. Of course, the British then did plenty of pushing north and west into French-claimed land. Both sides enlisted the help of various Native American peoples. The people we think of as “Americans” still thought of themselves as British colonists.
The movie definitely plays off of the Revolutionary War, which was still twenty years away. The British commanders are inflexible yet foppish, and show little regard for the colonists. The British soldiers are almost ineffectual against the enemy (whether French or Huron)—which might be appropriate given their red uniforms. Modern Western prejudices are leveraged as well: the enemy Hurons wear very little clothing, while the protagonist Mohicans are in loose Western dress. The antagonist Magua often speaks in the third-person, while the protagonists speak completely fluent English. (This makes sense in the story, since Magua’s second language is supposedly French, not English, but it’s probably still deliberate.)
The music could also have been from Lord of the Rings, but it reminded me more of the score of Revenge of the Sith. It was more generic than either of those, though.
The actual plot was okay until the end. For most of the movie it was fairly standard: foppish male outsider comes to terms with brave locals, strong female outsider becomes a brave local (via love affair), brave locals risk their lives for others. What made this movie different from, say, Pocahontas or Avatar was that (a) they didn’t make such a big deal over the conversion, and (b) the outsider (lead male from the colonialist force) isn’t the main character and doesn’t become the leader of the tribe in the end. Why? Two reasons: first, that the main character, Nathaniel1, was adopted by the Mohicans but is actually white anyway, and considers himself half-colonist, half-Mohican; and second, that this is based on actual historical events and so they could have large-scale battles without worrying about pushing the plot along.
So when they were done with the large scale battles and got to the end, it all fell to pieces. In the last hour of the movie they jammed in self-sacrifice, suicide, questionable justice, and way too much deus ex machina in the form of not-quite-monologuing, which broke the immersion for me. “He could have just killed them!”2
Cooper’s book was apparently responsible for much of the modern American impressions of Native Americans (besides casinos), including both the positive and the negative, and both truth and fantasy. The movie doesn’t feel like it’s blatantly pushing one way or another on this—the moral is not that colonialism is bad (although remote government apparently is), or that war should give way to peace. Actually, I think the only proposed moral in the movie—which might be different from the book, mind you—is Justice, and not even the best-justified justice at that. For all we were supposed to hate him, Magua’s story of why he’s seeking revenge is just as painful as anything that happened to Nathaniel.
So should you watch it? Um. I guess not. The plot is a bit jumpy in addition to being a bit weak. The characters aren’t particularly interesting and the romance is pretty stilted. It didn’t make me think. The action is pretty good, but that’s about it.
It has great reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, though. Am I missing something?
Postscript (spoilers): At the end of the movie, Chingachgook declares himself the “last of the Mohicans”. It was very sad to me that Nathaniel, his “white son”, didn’t count at all. I mean, sure, he’s only honorary, and Chingachgook’s “seed” has died, but…doesn’t Nathaniel count for something?
In the book this character calls himself “Natty Bumppo”, which I’ve actually heard before somewhere, but in the movie he’s just “Nathaniel”. The Huron call him “Long Rifle”, but they never explain why, and his Mohican name “Hawkeye”, IIRC, is never used. ↩︎
When you get to this part of the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about. ↩︎