The Last of the Mohicans is an American war epic mostly based on George B. Seitz’s 1936 film adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s eponymous 1826 novel. Directed, co-produced, and co-written by Michael Mann, the film stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Jodhi May, Russell Means, and Wes Studi and follows the fate of a group of British American colonials during the French and Indian War (1757).
James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans (1826), the second of his Leatherstocking Tales, was an improbable and turgidly written frontier adventure set in the Adirondacks during the second year of the French and Indian War (1757) that nonetheless proved to be Cooper’s most popular and iconic work. Indeed, The Last of the Mohicans defined the image of the early American settler and Native American in the popular imagination and spawned no fewer than nine film adaptations, four TV versions, a radio version, an opera version, and three comics versions in the 20th and early 21st centuries. The best of these renditions is director Michael Mann’s 1992 film version, a movie with an exceptionally long gestation period of 40 years. When Mann was a preschooler in Chicago c.1949, he saw the 1936 film version of Last of the Mohicans starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye—an experience that sparked a lifelong interest in the saga. After making five feature films in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly neo-noir, Mann acquired the rights to Philip Dunne’s 1936 Last of the Mohicans script in 1990, easily won funding approval from 20th Century-Fox, and then undertook a new adaptation, co-written with Cristopher Crowe, using Dunne’s script as their template, not Cooper’s novel. Mann cast Daniel Day-Lewis (who had just won an Oscar for My Left Foot) in the lead role as Hawkeye and then sent him to U.S. Army Col. David Webster, an officer at Fort Bragg who taught pilots wilderness survival skills. Webster took Day-Lewis to Many Hawks Special Operations Center in Pittsview, Alabama, and had him work with wilderness expert Mark A. Baker, who put him through a rigorous training program in marksmanship, hunting, trapping, and all the other proficiencies involved in living off the land—a skill set that Hawkeye would have had. Being the consummate Method actor, Day-Lewis bulked up and worked hard to master it all, then stayed in character on set by avoiding modern technology, rolling his own cigarettes, traveling by canoe, and keeping his muzzle-loading .40-caliber Pennsylvania flintlock rifle close at hand at all times. Dale Dye of Warriors, Inc., the military advisor for Platoon, Casualties of War, and many other war films, provided technical assistance on set.
For the shoot (which ran 15 weeks, from 17 June–10 October 1991), Michael Mann was a stickler for authenticity in the reproduction of period hairstyles, tattoos, beadwork, costumes, uniforms, flags, canoes, weapons, fortifications, etc. He also insisted on hiring hundreds of Native Americans to portray their colonial-era brethren, most notably Russell Means (1939–2012), an Oglala/Lakota Sioux Indian and first national director of the American Indian Movement (AIM), who portrays Hawkeye’s close friend, Chingachgook, in the movie. Dennis Banks, a Chippewa Indian and a close associate of Russell Means in AIM, plays Hawkeye’s friend, Ongewasgone. Wes Studi (Dances with Wolves), the actor who portrays the villainous Magua, is a member of the Cherokee tribe. Though Cooper’s novel is set in the vicinity of Lake George, Michael Mann chose to film in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Ashville, North Carolina (900 miles to the southwest), in order to better replicate 18th-century New York State because the area around Asheville more closely resembles the untouched old-growth forests of 1757. Some scenes were shot at Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s North Carolina estate south of Asheville, while other scenes were shot in nearby DuPont State Recreational Forest. The real Fort William Henry was located on the southern end of Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, but for the movie, a full-scale facsimile of the fort was built at the northern end of Lake James, in Lake James State Park, about 40 miles east of Asheville. Another set built for the movie was the Indian village where Magua takes his captives (Major Heyward and the Munro sisters). The location is 30 miles southwest of Lake James, in Chimney Rock Park. In the movie the cascading waters of Hickory Nut Falls can be seen overlooking the Indian village. It was at the top of these falls where the final fight scene between Chingachgook and Magua was filmed.
It is 1757 and the French and Indian War is raging in the Adirondack Mountains. British Army Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) arrives in Albany to serve under Col. Edmund Munro (Maurice Roëves), the commander of Fort William Henry on Lake George, 60 miles due north. Heyward is ordered to bring the colonel’s two daughters, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May), to their waiting father. An old friend of the Munro’s, Heyward professes his love to Cora and proposes to her. She leaves him without an answer. Major Heyward, the two women, and a small detachment of British soldiers march through the forest, guided by Magua (Wes Studi), a Huron warrior employed by the British as a scout, but the treacherous Magua soon leads the party into an ambush in the deep woods. The soldiers are all killed or injured, and Heyward and the women in his care are saved by a Mohican chief named Chingachgook (Russell Means), his son Uncas (Eric Schweig), and his white, adopted son “Hawkeye” (Daniel Day-Lewis). All who ambushed the group are eliminated, excepting Magua, who escapes. The trio agrees to escort the women and Heyward to the fort. En route through the forest, Cora and Hawkeye form an attraction, as do Uncas and Alice. When they arrive near the fort, they find that it is under siege by the French and their Huron allies. The small party evades enemy soldiers and enters the fort where they are greeted by Col. Munro, who asks Major Heyward about the reinforcements he has requested but is disappointed to discover that his plea for help never made it to Fort Edward. Cora and Hawkeye sneak away for a private embrace, and Cora is forced to tell a jealous Heyward that she will not be able to become his wife. Munro denies his soldiers leave to defend their families during the fighting, but Hawkeye sets up their return journeys anyway. Hawkeye himself stays to be close to Cora and, though sentenced to death, is saved by a stroke of fate. During a parlay, French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm (Patrice Chéreau) gives the British soldiers a chance to leave their fort honorably and return home without their guns. Munro assents to Montcalm’s terms, but Magua rails against the decision. The following day, Col. Munro, his soldiers, and their women and children leave the fort and march away in a long column when Magua and his Huron warriors ambush them from the surrounding woods. Magua kills Munro and cuts out his heart. Hawkeye and the Mohicans battle through, leading Cora, Alice, and Heyward to temporary safety. Later, however, Magua and his braves capture the major and the women in a cave behind a waterfall (Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas escape by diving into the rushing waterfall—a feat of toughness and athleticism that is too much for their British companions—but Hawkeye vows to come back for them). Magua brings his captives to a Huron settlement and asks its sachem (Mike Phillips) to dictate their fates—and is interrupted by Hawkeye, who has come in alone to plead for their lives. The sachem rules that Heyward must be returned to the British, Alice given to Magua, and Cora burned alive. Hawkeye’s bravery allows him to leave unscathed. However, Hawkeye tells translator Heyward to beg the sachem to let him (Hawkeye) take Cora’s place. But instead, Heyward swaps his own life for Cora’s life. After Cora and Hawkeye are at a safe distance, Hawkeye shoots Heyward to put him out of his misery as he burns at the stake. Chingachgook, Uncas, and Hawkeye then go after Magua’s party to try and free Alice. Uncas fights Magua, but is killed by his enemy. Alice chooses to step off the cliff in an act of suicide. While Hawkeye holds Magua’s remaining men at bay, Chingachgook slays Magua and avenges his son. With Hawkeye and Cora by his side, Chingachgook prays to the Great Spirit to receive Uncas, calling himself “the last of the Mohicans.”
The world premiere of The Last of the Mohicans was in Paris (where James Fenimore Cooper lived from 1826–1833) on 26 August 1992. The film had its U.S. premiere in Los Angeles on 24 September 1992. After a 12-week theatrical run (widest release: 1,856 theaters), Mohicans grossed $70 million in domestic box office receipts; the foreign market gross totaled $5.5 million, so overall ticket receipts came in at $75.5 million. The movie cost $35 to $40 million to make and another $15 to $20 million to market (considered high by industry standards). In the end, 20th Century Fox earned about $15 million in initial profits on a film that cost $50 to $60 million: a moderate financial success but still impressive for a period piece (and brisk video rentals later added another $25 to $30 million to the studio coffers). Reviews were mostly positive but critics did express some reservations. For example, Desson Howe wrote: “This is the MTV version of gothic romance, a glam-opera of rugged, pretty people from long ago. Yet, by its own glossy, Miami Vice rules, the movie is stirring. Besides, novelist Cooper’s vividly drawn savages and frontiersmen were hardly the stuff of hard-nosed realism. This movie is the Cooper pulp of its day” (Howe, 1992).
Reel History Versus Real History
The Last of the Mohicans is historical fiction; it superimposes a fictional plot onto an actual historical setting, intermingling fictional characters and events with real persons and real events. The main characters in the book and all other media versions (including Michael Mann’s film) are Cooper’s creations. The French and Indian War—including the siege and fall of Fort William Henry and the subsequent massacre of its evacuees—are, of course, historical realities. The movie’s depiction of these events is, however, not entirely accurate. In 1757, with hostilities flaring up between Britain and France, Lt. Col. George Monro (sometimes spelled ‘Munro,’ 1700–1757) was placed in command of 1,500 troops and 850 colonial militiamen at Fort William Henry on Lake George in the British Province of New York. On 3 August 1757 Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, Marquis de Saint-Veran (1712–1759), leading an 8,000-man force of French Army regulars and Indian allies, began to lay siege to Fort William Henry by crossfire artillery bombardment. Effectively cut off from Gen. Daniel Webb’s main British force after Webb refused to send reinforcements, Monro’s small garrison stood little chance against a foe more than four times its size and with many more guns. As depicted in the film, after a week of steady battering and mounting casualties, Monro was forced to open negotiations with Montcalm on 9 August. Monro’s stout defense won him generous surrender terms; he was able to negotiate safe passage for his troops (who were allowed to keep their weapons but no ammunition) to Fort Edward, about 16 miles to the south. However, Montcalm’s Indian allies did not honor the terms of surrender. As Monro led his defeated troops away from Fort William Henry, the Indians attacked his column, leaving an estimated 185 dead. In the movie, Montcalm secretly meets with Magua and gives him tacit permission to massacre Monro’s soldiers—a massacre that is on a much greater and deadlier scale than the actual one—and Magua personally murders Monro. Actually, there’s no firm evidence that Montcalm colluded with his Indian allies to permit or abet the massacre of Monro’s retreating troops, though the issue continues to be hotly debated by historians. Furthermore, Monro actually survived the massacre but died suddenly of apoplexy three months later, on 3 November 1757, at Albany. For dramatic purposes, Cooper gave Monro two daughters. In reality, he never married and had no children.