Michael Mann’s films turn on the fulcrum of historical upheaval. Sometimes that upheaval is imminent; sometimes it has already happened. In either case his characters are precision-tuned to reflect it, existing within an exact moment in time that violently disrupts their worldview and forces them to reconsider their very methods of being. Personal ideals are often overshadowed by realpolitik—cold, clinical systems that rely on dehumanization to function.

The Last of the Mohicans, adapted from James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel of the same name, stands among the purest distillations of Mann’s narrative rigor. Though an aesthetic departure—his signature glittering skylines and rain-slicked city streets are replaced with the verdant wilderness of colonial Albany—the film is every bit as concerned, if not more so, with the cosmic ebb and flow of change, the individuals swept up in it. Its fluctuating scope is laid bare in its two opening intertitles: “1757. The American colonies. It is the 3rd year of the war between England and France for the possession of the continent.” Followed by: “Three men, the last of a vanishing people, are on the frontier west of the Hudson River.” An entire continent; three men living on it.

These men are Chingachgook (Russel Means), an aging Mohican; Uncas (Eric Schweig), his biological son; and Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), his white, adopted son. When they chance upon Magua (Wes Studi), a Huron warrior, leading an ambush against British troops, they’re pulled deep into the snarls—material and ideological—of the French and Indian War. Complicating their involvement further is a burgeoning romance between Hawkeye and Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), daughter of a British colonel.

Mann’s affinity for history has scarcely been as apparent as it is here. Though dialogue and costuming were both exhaustively researched, Mohicans also tapped into a rich array of visual precedents, taking cues from the works of Benjamin West and N.C. Wyeth as well as several artists of the Hudson River School (Thomas Cole’s series of paintings based on the original novel are evoked in multiple compositions). Vast expanses of natural beauty recur frequently in Mann’s work—his preoccupation with troubled men gazing pensively at the ocean has in particular become something of a celebrated trend. In Mohicans these landscapes serve a different, if equally melancholy purpose. Rather than suggesting an unattainable means of escape from the pressures of modern living, they act as a solemn reminder of what would ultimately be lost to imperial warmongering.

Mohicans‘ tragedy grows from already knowing how it ends. The British would emerge victorious while the systematic conquest of indigenous Americans would continue, their cultures and populations eventually reduced to a shadow of what they once were. The film is set on a razor’s edge of past and future; characters reckon with how to sustain themselves amidst a feud between two foreign empires who either want them assimilated or vanished. It is especially unflinching in the layered characterization of Magua, whose methods, while ruthless, are all in service of preserving the Huron way of life. Though even this notion is fraught: if one’s way of life requires significant alteration to appease a higher power, can that really be called preservation? If not, is it still preferable to conflict?

These concerns come to a head in the climactic set piece. If it’s not the best filmmaking of Mann’s career it comes damn close: gripping, devastating, technically brilliant, it whittles transnational dialectics to such a fine point that one wonders how these struggles could have ever been about anything but family, about anything but humans fighting for their loved ones as they desperately cling to any hope for mutual survival in an otherwise hostile universe. Mohicans often gestures at the possibility of a shared future, and here we see the death of that dream play in miniature. Several generations’ worth of hurt, anger, and confusion pass between Chingachgook and Magua as they silently lock eyes and the fatal blow is delivered. They understand, in that moment, they were never meant to be enemies.

It would not be inaccurate to describe this as the film Mann had always wanted to make: George B. Seitz’s 1936 adaptation was pivotal to his interest in cinema, its imagery and sense of place sticking with him for decades after an initial childhood viewing. In fact, his version intentionally draws more from the Seitz film than the novel itself, which Mann has described as a “gross oversimplification” of Native cultures and hardships. These anecdotes are telling—they encapsulate well the duality of a filmmaker deeply invested in both sweeping cinematic spectacle and meticulous sociopolitical examination. The Last of the Mohicans, which begins with a chase sequence and ends with a eulogy, threads this needle beautifully.

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