When The Last of the Mohicans made its theatrical debut back in 1992, I was seven-years-old, and too young to see scalpings and cannon fodder on the big screen. My first viewing of the film happened one summer in the late-’90s—VHS on a 20-inch set at a friend’s house. I still remember being horrified by the epic battle scenes and brutal killings that, strung together, make up most of the movie. Eighteen years and countless CGI innovations later, The Last of the Mohicans is newly available in sleek Director’s Cut Blu-ray format, with mixed results.
The Last of the Mohicans is based on the 1826 book by James Fennimore Cooper and is the also the subject of a 1936 film, to which the latest incarnation owes much inspiration. The story takes place in summer 1757, during the French Indian War for control of North America. Daniel Day Lewis stars as Hawkeye, the adopted white son of Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother to Uncas (Eric Schweig). As Hawkeye, Day Lewis is equal parts tomahawk-wielding ninja and chiseled-abs dreamboat—his typically intense and focused performance is the strongest in a well-acted ensemble—and it is his path we are most drawn to among many interconnected narratives.
The war takes place against the dramatic background of a wild, verdant landscape (New York’s Hudson Valley in the story, but actually shot in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina) shot in summer greens and golds by cinematographer Dante Spinotti. The lush mountains and plunging grey waterfalls pair nicely with Randy Edelman, Trevor Jones and Daniel Lanois’s melancholy, swelling soundtrack. Both the setting and the sound contribute to the urgency depicted in the film: in respect to war, revenge, and survival, and also in passion. Hawkeye falls in love with a British Colonel’s spirited daughter, Cora (Madeleine Stowe). Their burgeoning connection becomes the sole reason to hope for survival as the story becomes increasingly bleak—mostly because they’re running from the murderous Magua (Wes Studi) who wants to kill Cora and her sister in order to settle an old score.
While The Last of the Mohicans is a war movie, it’s also a lush period piece reminiscent of the rich historical detail of a Merchant Ivory picture. The weapons, clothing, and cultural practices demonstrated by the characters are all more or less accurate. The commitment to historic representation extends to the use of language: the French speak French, and the Mohicans speak something resembling Mahican (no one has actually spoken Mahican since the early twentieth century), instead of the common Hollywood practice of giving all foreigners vaguely British accents.
Michael Mann’s director’s cut differs slightly (or substantially, depending on your degree of diehard Mohicanness) from the theatrical version of the film. Certain scene are cut, amended, or added. CGI technology makes an appearance in the form of enhancing the glow from battle blasts, or adding sound effects, in particular the slick thunk of tomahawks colliding with human flesh. For the truly obsessed, each of the 44 differences between the original and director’s cuts of the film are painstakingly documented here with pictures, to boot.
The visual Blu-Ray transfer is rich and dynamic, but this has more to do with the film being beautifully shot than it does with digital remastering. The sound transfer fares less well—musket blasts and battles cries are ear piercing, while standard-level dialogue can be difficult to hear. If you’re watching the Blu-ray, be prepared to fiddle with your volume control.
For fans of Day Lewis and Mann, the Mohicans Blu-ray may be worth the hefty price tag. But with its poor sound transfer and awkward Mann-added scenes, the new edition is more marketing ploy and less impressive recut. For most cinephiles, the VHS cut of Hawkeye racing through the woods in buckskin will do just fine.
The special features on the Blu-ray include a nice display and better-than-average making-of featurette. The Featurette has recent interviews with Day Lewis, Mann, Stowe, the casting director and the weapons master, among others. Detailed explications on how the filmmakers created historical accuracy are interesting, but the main draw here is Daniel Day– dashing and articulate as ever.