Michael Mann’s 1992 take on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans has been my favorite movie since I first saw it.
Desiring to make a film of the novel updated for the late 20th century, Mann—who produced the film, wrote the script with the help of one person, and directed action with two others—departed from the novel on several key points, some of which had to do with change in genre, some with “New Age Indian” popular culture, others, perhaps, with a desire to put his own footprint on an enduring epic.
Though I had not thought of it in years, upon finally reading the novel and watching the movie yet again, I remembered that the timing of its release, the year of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America, was probably not coincidental. Many of the popular notions (and misconceptions) of “Indian” or “Native American” culture current at the time show up in various scenes.
Unlike the novel, the movie begins with the protagonist, Natty Bumpo, whom Mann renames Nathaniel Poe, his adopted father Chingachgook (adopted elder brother in the novel), and his adopted brother Uncas chase a deer through the forest, hunting it down to kill it for food, its skins, and other uses. Upon its death, Nathaniel (who also carries the appellations Hawkeye and Le Longue Carabine, or Long Rifle) kneels down at its side and prays for its forgiveness for killing it out of necessity, an example of Mann’s injecting of popular notions into the film—Indians viewed as in harmony with the land and all its creatures.
Later in the story, the refugees avoid detection by a French-led Huron war party refusing to enter the burial ground where the group hides for the night, another New Ageism about Indians in general; neither the Iroquoian Huron nor the Algonquin Mohican of the time had burial grounds nor held such things in awe.
Meanwhile, the Munro sisters, Cora and Alice, daughters of General Munro who commands the garrison at Fort William Henry, arrive in New York colony in a scene which contrasts imperial England with the colonial frontier. Here, Major Duncan Heyward, newly assigned to her father’s command, pleads the cause of his courtship with Cora, who tells him she does not love him.
This scene establishes one of the bases for the conflict between Heyward and Nathaniel, who later falls for Cora as she does for him. At one point the former aims a pistol at the latter intending to shoot him, which is absent in the novel. Also in the novel, it is not Cora with whom Heyward falls in love but her younger and more delicate sister Alice (whose character stays much the same).
The next morning, a British officer exhorts the colonials to join the militia, calling them to serve for “King and Country”. When Nathaniel asks why any of them should fight for his (the officer’s) country and the officer in reply asks if he does not consider himself a patriot and loyal subject of the crown, Nathaniel answers, “I don’t consider myself subject to much of nothing.” A colonial named Jack Winthrop gains General Webb’s promise to allow the militia to return home if the Huron, France’s main Indian allies in the movie, begin attacking the frontier.
Heyward, in Webb’s office when the negotiation takes place, expresses contempt for the army having to negotiate with the colonials. This contempt, and that of the other English officers in the film, does not appear in the novel; rather, he and Munro (who in the film wants to hang Nathaniel for sedition) highly regard Nathaniel and his companions for their abilities and knowledge about the frontier. No doubt Mann added that element to Cooper’s story to appeal to the American public’s latent anti-British feelings. However, here Cooper proves more historical—at the time, the colonials in the English colonies still considered themselves English.
Mann attacks the French general, Montcalm, with an equal fusillade, so France does not escape slander either. Historians differ about how much action Montcalm took to prevent or stop the massacre of the departing English-Mohawk-colonial contingent, but at worst they have suggested he knew about it and did nothing to prevent it. In contrast, Mann portrays Montcalm as all but ordering Magua to carry it out.
Magua of the film, who leads the column in which the Munro sisters travel with Major Heyward and the regiment to Ft. Henry into an ambush (in the novel he offers to take the three there by a shortcut with similar results), shares much of the same early life story with his literary counterpart but receives a more sympathetic reason for hating Munro. The general was behind the Mohawk attack on his village in which his children were killed and after which his wife, thinking Magua dead, remarried; in the book he finds hardship because of alcoholism.
Magua, portrayed by Cherokee actor Wes Studi, displays in Mann’s film the same cunning and ruthlessness, though, which Cooper gives him, earning his French nickname in the novel, Le Renard Subtile (Subtle Fox).
Besides his animosity for Nathaniel, Heyward displays in the film another bad character trait not present in Cooper: deceit.
After their rescue by the trio of Nathaniel, Chingachgook, and Uncas from the attack on the regiment travelling to Fort Henry, Heyward and the Munro sisters continue on their way by another path where the party comes upon friends of the Mohican trio killed by a war party with their house burned. Hawkeye orders that the bodies lay where they are in order that the path of the refugees not be discovered.
When they arrive at the fort, asks Munro to release the militia to defend their homes as Webb had promised. Upon being asked if Nathaniel’s story is true, Heyward denies it, and Munro refuses the request, whereupon Hawkeye arranges for those militia who wish to do so to escape, leading to his arrest for sedition.
Mann atones for his characterization of Heyward toward the end of the movie in which the Sachem, the elder who is the chief man in the Huron town (sachem is an Algonquian rather than Iroquoian word, by the way) orders Cora burned in compensation for the loss of Magua’s children. Hawkeye protests, offering himself, saying what a great honour the death of Le Longue Carabine would be to the Huron, telling Heyward to translate it into French, which only Heyward speaks and which serves as the lingua franca in the region where they then are.
Instead, Heyward offers himself in her place, sparing Hawkeye; Cooper places a similar scene, though no one dies in it, in a Delaware (Lenape) town which does not appear in the film. Thus, Heyward of the movie finally lives up to Heyward of the novel. In a scene recalling Episode 3 of the 1977 miniseries “How the West Was Won”, in which Zeb Macahan shoots his friend Cully Madigan who is being tortured to death by Indians, Hawkeye performs the same mercy for Heyward as the flames reach his body once he and Cora have gotten a safe distance away.
The character in the movie who gets the shortest shrift is Uncas. Where in the book, Heyward, as the pursuer of Alice, is the romantic hero, Uncas is the valorous hero, famous throughout the region for his deeds and bravery. Where Nathaniel in the movie is in love with Cora, Cooper makes Uncas her beloved, and he is drawn toward her because she is such a strong individual. Where Nathaniel in the movie enters the Huron village alone and is made to run the gauntlet, that role falls to Uncas in the novel, who in it has a French title of his own, Le Cerf Agile (Bounding Elk). Overall, in his film Mann greatly diminishes Uncas’ role in events.
Actually, I could say that the major character in Cooper to whom Mann gives the shortest shrift is David Gamut, since he does not appear at all. In Cooper he plays a key role in several scenes, most notably in the long chase after the sisters when they are taken from the battlefield following the ambush after the surrender of Ft. Henry.
Speaking of the chase, in the book the chase takes up at least a fourth of the action and is a nod to the famous chase by Daniel Boone and his companions after the Cherokee-Shawnee war party which took captive Boone’s daughter Jemima and the Callaway sisters Elizabeth and Frances lasting three days and ending with the girls’ rescue. Gamut trails the war party close behind while the rest of the group, Hawkeye and his two Mohican companions along with Heyward and Munro (who does not die in the novel), follow three days behind, and, like Boone’s, their chase lasts three days.
Like the book, the final action in the movie is a fight on the cliffs, and is similar in that Magua does kill Uncas in both. Rather than Alice jumping off the cliff as in the movie, however, Cora gets stabbed by one of Magua’s men, who is in turn killed by Uncas before his own death at Magua’s hands.
In the movie, Chingachgook kills his son’s killer with an axe, but in the book it is Hawkeye with his famous long rifle. Mann places this scene just after that in which Hawkeye shoots Heyward. Leaving out the Delaware village Cooper supplies in his book gave Mann no Delaware warriors for the picture Cooper paints of the battle as a lead up to the chase and fight on the cliffs.
Having watched the film again after reading the novel, I would now like the film better without the elements of Anglophobia and the manufactured-for-the-film animosity between Nathaniel and Heyward. Of course, since Nathaniel is the hero and this is a Hollywood film, the hero has to get the girl, and, being the late 20th century (when released), she has to be the strong one rather than the damsel-in-distress. Maybe the triangle should have been between Uncas and Heyward over Alice.
On the other hand, Mann greatly improved the story for modern audiences by removing the elements of racism laced throughout Cooper’s written tale. He makes up for changing Nathaniel’s family name from Bumppo to Poe and his self-reference from Natty to Nathaniel, as well as the slander with which he treats the characters of Munro, Heyward, and Montcalm.
Natty of the novel several times refers to himself as a “man without a cross”, meaning a white man of “pure-race”; at first when I saw that phrase I thought it meant he was areligious. Furthermore, he objects to the pairing of Cora Munro with his friend Uncas because they are of different races; how much more would Natty of the novel have objected had he known what Munro told Heyward when the latter asked for his blessing to pursue Alice, that Cora by his first wife was a quadroon, three-quarters-white and one-quarter-African-Caribbean?
Without these bigotries, Nathaniel of the film proves a much better human being and a less equivocal hero for the late 20th/early 21st centuries than Natty of the novel.
Final note: Chingachgook was not really the “last of the Mohicans”; descendants of the Mohican survive today in the Stockbridge-Munsee Community of Wisconsin and as the Stockbridge element of that union (the Munsee are a branch of the Lenape).