Friday, October 15, 2010

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (Fox 1992) Fox Home Video

Based on James Fenimore Cooper's historic novel (the second and best known of the Leatherstocking Tales anthology), Michael Mann's The Last of The Mohicans (1992) is a powerful and engrossing epic that continues to mystify and grow more resilient and memorable with age. Cooper was inspired to write his saga of struggle between Native Americans and the warring French and English factions after his 1825 vacation through the Catskills. Despite critical reception, the novel - and, in fact, the anthology - sold remarkably well, both in America and in Europe and beginning in 1920, Hollywood's fascination with the story began to manifest itself with various film adaptations. To date there have been no less than 5 movie versions, with Mann's being the last, and quite possibly, most definitive.

The screenplay by Mann and scenarist Christopher Crowe is set in 1757 at the height of the British/French conflict and Indian War. Bound by law, reluctant Colonialists led by Jack Winthrop (Edward Blatchford) leave for Albany to pledge their loyalty and form a militia that will stand with the British crown in defence from French aggression. Chigachgook (Russell Means), his son Uncas (Eric Schweig) and his adopted 'white' son, Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) also make their journey to Albany to obtain terms from Gen. Webb (Mac Andrews). Publicly, Webb agrees to let the militia disband if their homes are attacked while they are away. But the old guard is a wily plotter and quite unaware that in his midst there stands the traitor, Magua (Wes Studi) who intends to lead the British to destruction.

Meanwhile, in another part of the glen, Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) is being wooed by hapless suitor, Maj. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington). Although Cora considers Duncan a close friend, she has no intensions of accepting his marriage proposal. While Cora is indeed knowledgeable and wiser than her years on such matters, her younger sister Alice (Jodi May) is a true innocent. The two sisters are being escorted by a British garrison to Fort Henry to meet with their father, Col. Edmund Monroe (Maurice Roeves). Magua, however, has other plans.

Ambushed deep in the woods and sustaining many casualties, Cora and Alice are saved from certain death by Hawkeye who sees them through to Fort William Henry. On their way they pass the smouldering ruins of the Cameron homestead. The news is not much better at Fort Henry. Under siege by the French, Col. Monroe realizes that Magua has betrayed the British and informs Duncan that unless a messenger is sent to Gen. Webb at Fort Edward for reinforcements, Fort Henry will fall.

Meanwhile, Hawkeye informs the colonials of the Cameron attack. But Munro refuses to grant them pardon to return to their respective homesteads to save their families, forcing Hawkeye to help Jack and his friends escape. Hawkeye remains behind with Cora and is arrested for sedition and ordered to be hanged. But time and fate are on Hawkeye's side.

Fort Henry is forced to surrender to French Gen. Montcalm (Patrice Chereau). The terms of that surrender, however, are quite generous with safe passage provided for all to Albany on the condition that they return to England immediately. Regrettably, as the British march on they are once more ambushed by Magua's Huron armies. Magua vows to murder Cora and Alice, first cutting out Munro's heart and burning Duncan at the stake.

Cora and Alice are taken prisoner by the Hurons. Alice, who has developed an unrequited attachment to Uncas watches helplessly as Magua murders her beloved before taking her own life by jumping from a cliff. As Cora is led up the steep precipice, presumably to her death Hawkeye and Chingachgook ambush what remains of Magua's cutthroat army. Chingachgook avenges his son's murder by killing Magua and Hawkeye saves Cora - presumably with the two on their way to becoming man and wife. In the final moments of the story, Chingachgook reluctantly names himself the last of the Mohicans at a ceremony honouring Uncas' passing.

The Last of the Mohicans is compelling entertainment, powerfully wrought with intense melodrama bookended by some of the most brutal action sequences of its time. Michael Mann's direction is taut, the pace of the editing swift and self assured, elevating what might otherwise have simply degenerated into gross carnage to a quantifiable level of artistic merit and cinematic poise. In their brief moments together, Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe have genuine romantic chemistry - the passionate heart of an otherwise skewed historical drama.

Fox Home Video's Blu-Ray transfer is, regrettably, quite unacceptable. Despite a dual layer 1080p transfer, the video image is severely darker than expected with the result being an intense loss of fine details throughout this presentation. Contrast levels are so low that one has to strain to concentrate on the story - even in a completely darkened room. Another curiosity of this transfer is that, even in close up, flesh tones lack in fine detail. It's as though excessive DNR has been applied liberally to the film from start to finish - yet, occasionally uniforms and background forest details will suddenly pop to life with razor sharpness.

The audio is also nothing to get excited about: a 5.1 DTS master that sounds tinny and shallow with a considerable lack of bass tonality. Last, and probably 'least' of all - Fox has overlooked this great catalogue title in the extras. We get Mann's commentary (a holdover from previously issued DVDs and - if memory serves me correctly - the laserdisc release) plus the briefest of featurettes on the making of the film. For shame!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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