American Indian Wars
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Filmmaker Michael Mann’s career in the ’80s was bathed in neon glitz and excess, starting with the just-plain-awesome Thief, detouring to TV with the Don Johnson-dominated Miami Vice, and ending back on the big screen with Hannibal Lecktor’s debut in Manhunter. It was obvious where Mann was headed as he entered into the next decade: the year 1757? Mann proved he was more than a one-trick pony with his adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, a piece of historical fiction laden with action, romance, betrayal, romance, violence, and holy moly romance.
Is it historically accurate? Let me check my AP History notes…who cares? The fiction-based Mohicans is set in New York during the French & Indian War. After a betrayal by their guide Magua (Wes Studi), British troops are ambushed and slaughtered, leaving only the daughters of a Colonel (Madeleine Stowe, Jodhi May) and one British soldier alive. The reason for their survival? The badass Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his family. A romance ensues amidst the backdrop of war, and with it comes the inevitable nightmares of loss on repeat.
Mann’s film doesn’t shy away from romanticism, even as it deals with death. This wouldn’t work if the chemistry between Day-Lewis and Stowe wasn’t smoldering as all get-out. The connection resonates immediately, as does the passion later on. Add that to the beautiful scenery (filmed in North Carolina), exciting action set-pieces, a classic score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, and a 10-minute climax with no dialogue, and it’s clear that Mohicans is the best film of its historical period, and one of the best of Mann’s career.
Purple Heart: Were you expecting Dances with Wolves to at the very least receive this? Sorry to disappoint, but the runner-up goes to Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. His 1970 western blends together comedy and unbearable tragedy as a 120-year-old Jack Crabb (played by an unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman) tells the story of his life as a young man (played by a recognizable Dustin Hoffman) with the Cheyenne and his many adventures. Penn’s movie tends to go unmentioned when talk of great ’70s films comes up, but that’s more a credit to the time period than it is to unforgivable or deliberate omission. It’s an all-timer from Hoffman and that is certainly saying something.