When I use films in my history courses, it is not without trepidation. Hollywood, more often than not, gets the past wrong. And yet, so many people look at historically based movies and believe that is what “really happened.” No. A thousand times, no. Hence, when one of them makes it into my classroom (though I have not been in a physical one in a while), it comes with a great deal of contextualization. Much to my students’ chagrin, we usually do not watch the whole thing either. We are given only so much time with them, and if we are fortunate enough to have them actually show up, we try not to waste time on screening a bunch of dramatized crap that is tossed in to cinematic history in order to make the subject more interesting. Put differently, I show them the “boring stuff.” However, with today’s film, The Last of the Mohicans (1992), luckily the majority of it is pretty safe to be seen in a college classroom. At any rate, enjoy this review of it!
In the deep, dark recesses of the American wilderness, Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), Uncas (Eric Schweig), and their father Chingachgook (Russell Means) are hunting deer in the first scenes of The Last of the Mohicans. They take their prize to the nearby Cameron farm where they share a meal with the family living in the small cabin in the woods (no cinematic pun intended). The next day, a group of British soldiers come to the Cameron farm where a group of frontier farmers and native peoples have gathered. The soldiers are seeking volunteers to fight in the war against the French, for, as the opening crawl proclaims, the French and Indian War (1755-1763) is raging across North America. Hawkeye and his brother and father want nothing to do with the fight, but some of the colonial men agree to form a militia. While Hawkeye and company depart, Jack Winthrop (Edward Blatchford), the leader of the volunteers, goes to General Webb (Mac Andrews) to agree to the terms of said militia. Arriving at the same time is Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington), a newcomer to the colonies who is to lead a detachment of troops to Fort William Henry, which is commanded by Colonel Edmund Munro (Maurice Roëves). Accompanying them on this trek are Colonel Munro’s two daughters, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May), as well as a supposed Mohican ally Magua (Wes Studi). Along the way, Magua turns out to be a Huron spy, and attempts to ambush the Munro sisters with a few of his compatriots hiding in the woods. Coming to their aid is Hawkeye and company, who manage to fend off the would-be attackers, but Magua escapes. With Chingachgook’s blessing, they agree to escort Major Heyward and the Munro sisters, though their route is not without tragedy and peril, particularly when they come across a burned Cameron farm. When they finally get to Fort William Henry, they find that it is under attack by the French and their allies among the native peoples, like the Huron, and they have to sneak into the fortifications. Once there, despite Colonel Munro’s relief at seeing his daughters alive and gratitude for their safe passage, he immediately begins quarreling with Hawkeye. When Hawkeye meets up with Jack and the colonial militiaman learns of the Cameron farm’s fate, he demands that his people be allowed to leave to protect their homes. Colonel Munro refuses, and this leads to a veritable mutiny resulting in Hawkeye’s imprisonment, and he stays there even though Cora pleads for his life to his father. Her and Hawkeye had developed feelings for each other, much to Major Heyward’s dismay. The tipping point comes when it becomes evident that they can no longer survive the French bombardment, and Colonel Munro is forced to surrender or face annihilation. His doing so at least saves them from the French. The Huron are a different story. As the British garrison marches away, the Huron spring a trap that results in the death of almost everyone who inhabited the fort. It is part of Magua’s desire for revenge on Colonel Munro, a man the Huron war captain blames for the death of his family. In the resulting carnage, Hawkeye is freed by Uncas and Chingachgook, and they are able to save Cora and Alice, but only until Magua tracks them down. Believing they will have a better chance at rescuing Cora and Alice later, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas leave Cora, Alice, and Major Heyward behind. Yet, they make good on their word to come to their assistance, and Hawkeye enters the Huron village in peace in order to beg for Cora and Alice’s life. The end result of the conference is that Cora is allowed to leave with Hawkeye in exchange for Major Heyward’s life, but Alice is forced stay with Magua. Thus, Uncas (who somewhere along the line had caught feelings for Alice) mounts his own rescue attempt that fails miserably at Magua’s hands. Dad comes through afterwards and gets his comeuppance with Magua falling at his feet, and that is basically where the film ends.
Since I mentioned history at the beginning of this review of The Last of the Mohicans, that is where I will stay. Aside from a few moments, such as the ridiculous sequence where Hawkeye wields two rifles at once, the film has everything you could want from a historical drama. This ties in with Faith, too. Since you have probably never wondered why the French and Indian War got its name, allow me to explain it to you anyway. It is also probably the most important conflict in American History you have never heard of, but that is a different discussion entirely. In short, the French were Catholic and the British were not. That is important because the Protestant ethos, at least with the British, did not place an emphasis on converting native peoples to Christianity. The common perception of Europeans’ interactions with native peoples is that it was generally bad, and certainly a lot of atrocities did take place. However, from the start the Catholic Church has preached that every soul is redeemable in the eyes of God. As such, when the Americas began to be explored, going along with them were missionaries who hoped to win people to Christianity. There is a funny meme out there that sums this era up where, on one side, you have Martin Luther inducing millions in Europe to leave the Church, while on the other you see a few years later Our Lady of Guadalupe appearing in Mexico and millions more join. Despite what popular belief might tell you, Catholic missionaries were quite successful in converting native peoples to Christianity. The French and Indian War is a testament to this fact. While the British did have a few allies amongst native populations, like the Mohicans, the French had far more because of the work of lone Jesuits trekking through the wilds of North America and proclaiming the word of God. You can see the evidence of this in the film when Magua meets with the French commander, General Marquis de Montcalm (Patrice Chéreau). When the Huron enters the tent, Montcalm is listening to a group of native children singing the Agnus Dei in Latin, a Jesuit priest conducting. This is a small aspect of the film, but it is nice to see that at least someone was doing their research when they made the film.
There is a bit of violence in The Last of the Mohicans. The fighting that took place during the French and Indian War, even more so than other conflicts of that time, was brutal. Hence, it earns its R rating. Still, if you want a decent sense of mid-eighteenth century America, you could do far worse than this movie. Just try to ignore some of Hawkeye’s antics.