We see a land. It has no name and no memory. It runs towards the horizon in gentle mauve waves, crests black and forested, troughs lost in mist. The world looks gentle – as if no one had been there to push upon it and prove it hard. It looks as translucent as smoked blue glass or smoke itself and like glass and smoke, land runs as water does on geological currents. What shore do these waves reach? We can’t know – they haven’t found that shore yet. We’re looking at America, not the same one we know, but America as the fur trappers and the men in crow’s nests must have seen it, blue and smoking under dawn, dark with tree shadow. The air is heavy, solid, undivided by the ticking of kitchen clocks. It is the land that Gatsby and Nick Carraway yearn for, turn back to look at behind the dim rising towers of New York. We’re looking at something commensurate with man’s capacity to wonder.
On one level, The Last of the Mohicans is a love story that takes place during the French and Indian War. Nathaniel Poe, an orphaned colonialist raised by one of the last Mohicans, saves Cora Munro – an English general’s daughter – from an ambush of Hurons. After the smoke clears, he watches her pick up a pistol from the ground where men lie in attitudes of death. She learns. She is more than her past. Nathaniel, who is made of something as stark and speechless as bone, falls for her and what he wants, he follows.
On the level of a love story between people, The Last of the Mohicans tells a simple tale. Poe guides Cora, her sister, and his rival Englishman, Duncan, to her father’s besieged fortress. Her father, a Scottish general, revokes the rights of the colonialists in order to keep them in the fort. Outside, the French raise their cannons while Magua, a Huron, waits in the shadows. Duncan wants to marry Cora. Magua is torn between making her his wife and cutting out her heart.
On this level, I found the movie enjoyable, if predictable. It saddened me that Daniel Day Lewis, who rivets me to the chair with his performances, came across like a normal actor. In some scenes, you can see him reaching for something that isn’t quite there. I don’t think it’s his fault, though. Nathaniel Poe is too honest to be portrayed in shades of many colors. We find the bones of man in him. He falls in love and like a man in love, he wants to keep what he desires. His character contains no flaw, or at least, we never see one. Fate shoots him like an arrow at rival lovers.
The film contains the love story between Nathaniel Poe and Cora Munro within a larger story of a love for an unknown land the way that the sound of a snapped twig fits in the vast silence of a forest. Nathaniel’s simplicity makes sense in this light. We use him and Cora like a polished glass angled at the past to examine the wilderness we never knew.
In one of the opening scenes, Poe escorts Duncan and the Munro sisters out of the forest without being asked, without being thanked, and certainly at great consequence to himself. Why does he save them? I found myself wondering as Duncan reprimands him for abandoning his duty to England. You have the feeling that he would guide any stranger who had stepped beneath the trees back out again, even an enemy. You get the feeling that for anyone but an Indian, alliances shift like leaf shadows beneath the trees. Poe, his brother and father, escort the English people out beneath the elm in a hushed reverence. Perhaps they know if the English linger too long, they’ll want to light a torch or cut down a tree.
The shadowy immensity of America, wrapped in mythic fog, or blurred with mushrooms of cannon fire, throws its mountainous shadow in every scene. Pockets of war move around the landscape as minuscule as ships lost in a sea of leaves. In one sequence, the sound of cannon fire causes Poe to part the branches of a tree. Across a river, a black lattice of trees flickers out of the night, lit by the fire of man’s siege engines. The trees seem to brood over those fires, knowing they are short lived as the shadows they cast, but that other fires wait and will come. Above on a cliff, a red cloud hangs over a burning city.
“My father warned me about people like you,” Poe tells Munro after she chastises him for not burying the dead. “They are a breed apart and make no sense.” He is talking to us. He tells her a story about the earth scattering the stars to remind the sun of its soul. His face white and star burnt, he looks up across the greatest gulf and sees his friends in the constellations. Cora shivers and lies flatter in the grass.
The movie touches on the spirits of entire countries, the kernel of an idea that each man carries alone, and that ferments into a larger animal when they gather. The colonists fight for England because the crown still flickers distantly by the light of loyalty. But the labor of chipping out a life for themselves from the hard emerald of the forest has made them loyal to something else, to immediate things, to the soreness in their hands, to the smoke stained face that raises from the hearth. We leave them with the idea of America just beginning to ferment.
Later, a line of Englishmen stare into the forest. They can see the Indians slipping through it like the shadow of a leaf. The Indians beneath the trees know that the English won’t step into the forest. The English and the French think of things as having insides and outsides and they are afraid of what is inside the trees. The Indians know this and this is their power.
But the French and the English also know the ins and outs of honor. Outside it wears brass medals and professes death before defeat. Inside, it tells the lie that keeps the colonists in the fort, or sends Magua off, his knife gleaming in the moonlight. Inside, honor bows its head on the field of battle, to save the men. To the Indians, things have no insides and outsides. They simply are. This is what will allow the French and the English to manipulate the Indian. Meanwhile, the Indians wait at the border of the trees and the English fear them.
Magua is the core of this film and the villain. He’s also the most tragic character. He has a long history with the colonialists which Poe sums up neatly: “Magua’s heart is twisted. He would make himself into what twisted him.” Magua wants revenge against Colonel Munro and unlike the rest of the Indians, he plays colonial games to get what he wants. He allows himself to be used, not knowing the depth of cunning that belongs to men behind desks, who can move ivory piece empires on sheepskin maps of countries.
The Indians are fading like morning shadows and Magua knows this. He came from a land that forgets everything. It gives birth to men as bronze as statues and unfinished as clay. Of course, the English and the French are unfinished too. But they see the ins and outs of things, and though their hearts are clay, they powder their wigs and starch their cuffs stiff.
The Last of the Mohicans documents the last moments of America as dream and smoke, before our hands shut about it and made it solid. A fight scene plays out at the end of the movie. We might think of it as the last of its kind. Three people die and no words are spoken between them. There is something being said here but they never needed words for it back then, and we don’t know it well enough to talk about it now. Afterwards, when the last of the Mohicans looks down on the land, it is already fading, running on waves that maybe never reach their shore. The land moves on but people are lost. What is lost are the eyes that have seen a land that is not yet, but dreams to be.
The Good: A sweeping orchestral soundtrack that fits the grandeur of an imagined land.
The Bad: The love story of this film is credible and good, but nothing spectacular.
The Best: The film gives the sense of what America must have been like to pioneers: something too large to be fathomed. Also, the last ten minutes of the film.