The Last of the Mohicans was released in cinemas in September 1992 and now, 27 years later, Michael Mann’s Director’s Definitive Cut is available locally for the first time on Blu-ray, alongside the Original Theatrical Version. The director discusses the differences and looks back on the film with STACK.
Michael Mann’s critically acclaimed, majestic and ultimately devastating retelling of the classic American novel of the same name is the story of a dying native American tribe – the Mohicans – and their conscription in the French Indian War of 1757. Daniel Day Lewis stars as Hawkeye, the white adopted member of the tribe who falls in love with the daughter of a British colonel, played by Madeleine Stowe.
Speaking exclusively to STACK, Mann recalls working with Day-Lewis and the actor’s commitment to his craft. “Daniel’s ambition is spectacular. I mean every actor should be as intense and serious and legitimate as he is. He is totally authentic and totally legitimate. As a director it is a blessing to have that.”
Known for films such as Manhunter, Heat, Public Enemies and Miami Vice, The Last of the Mohicans stands out as one of Mann’s most ambitious and highly conceptual projects, boasting sprawling cinematography, authentic period costume designs, and brutally realistic battle sequences. The integrity of said work is all too evident, and throughout the years most of his titles remain untouched aside from two films, Mohicans and Ali.
Describing the fundamental differences between director’s cuts and the theatrical releases, he explains, “There are a lot of differences. Every time there’s a new format, that becomes the license for me to go back in to something to see what it is I got wrong, or that I want to fix or improve, or handle a different way. Some of the films I’ve done I’ve never touched. But Mohicans, I think that this Blu-ray is by far the best version and I wish I had released it theatrically like that.”
“There’s some changed dialogue. There’s some exposition that was in the theatrical version that audiences didn’t need,” he continues. “Particularly speech-making that happens. At the end, in case you didn’t know what the film was about, ‘let me have the characters tell you’, which I don’t like. So I got rid of that.
“There were also some awkward moments, which I thought could be improved. The only other film which I’ve changed that radically – meaning the number of cuts and remixing – is Ali, which again the current Blu-ray is the best version.”
The mid to early ‘90s saw a rise of historical films telling indigenous stories. With contemporaries such as Dances with Wolves, Sioux City, Clear Cut and (to a lesser extent) Disney’s Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale, it was The Last of the Mohicans that stood out, speaking directly to the heart of imperialism, treachery and humanity, albeit packaged as a classic story of romance and adventure.
When asked if he felt like Mohicans was part of a movement at the time, Mann says that this wasn’t the case. “No. It wasn’t a part of any movement. I realised I had been thinking about this story since I was about four or five years old. That’s where it came from. And it just felt like such a fresh thing for me because I had been doing a lot of writing, most of which was urban dramas. I had done Thief and I did Miami Vice and Crime Story, which was also period, and so it was very attractive to do something different. I can understand where you’re coming from. People analyze media. They look at it and they look for patterns and similarities, but as a filmmaker you’re not thinking about any of that.”
Moving forward to today’s state of affairs and ever-changing world views, Mann considers how Mohicans might offer value to current conversations. “I think it does, and not because it lends itself to being part of contemporary discourse. But rather it has some philosophical relevance. At the end of the film, Chingachgook is the last of his people, and he talks about that. And the frontier that’s ahead of Hawkeye is a kind of future. It’s a virgin territory and a virgin time. And eventually people like Hawkeye and his wife will leave and other people will come… and that’s the universal human condition. But you know, Mohicans is a motion picture. It’s a drama. It’s a story. And for me it hits a relevance about how you look at your own life that makes it important.”
The Last of the Mohicans remains Mann’s only foray into the particular brand of historical drama of untamed America. When asked whether he had, or would consider returning to the genre, he replies without hesitation: “Yes. I like the frontier. I like the west… although Mohicans is not a western. I think the distinction between it and Dances with Wolves – and Dances with Wolves is absolutely terrific – is that Dances with Wolves is a western. So yes, I would return to that genre. I would return to that period. I’ve always wanted to do a classical western.”
Mann considers Mohicans as purely a period drama, of which most of its themes derive from the 1936 film, which he admits “in and of itself is not that good, but the screenplay by Philip Dunne is quite fantastic. And that is why I made sure he had a credit in my film.”
Despite Mohicans‘ not-quite-western status, its influence and authority certainly transcends and has manifested itself within the western cinescape.
Australian audiences might be surprised to find striking similarities within local director Matthew Holmes’ bushranger tale The Legend of Ben Hall. Holmes recently recalled his affection for Mohicans: “It’s one of my all time favourites and it was absolutely a big influence on Ben Hall, just on 1/100 of the budget. The big music and the tragic finale were also a major influencing element.”
Another major influence Mann has upon modern home entertainment is his contribution to how we experience cinema from the comfort of our lounge rooms. When The Insider was released in 1999 it was the first VHS release to bear a compulsory widescreen ‘letterbox’ format. It was a controversial and frustrating concept for consumers at the time, whose televisions were still predominantly square. The resulting effect resulted in black bars framing the image, which was commonly misunderstood to be the cropping of the image. Mann recalls this period: “I couldn’t tolerate the notion that these compositions were compromised. All of the formal elements of The Insider were critical because it’s 2 hours and 45 minutes of people talking, so if that’s going to be suspenseful then you are heavily reliant on being as interpretive as possible using composition, colour, music, sound design – all of that. So the notion of it being anything less than what I composed was unacceptable.”
His insistence of a truer prevailing presentation helped pave the way for the 16:9 ratios that we expect today, and in explaining the importance of maintaining integrity, Mann adds: “When you’re in the middle of your career, directors who really care about what they’re doing, like Christopher Nolan or John Favreau, go to a great degree to ensure the quality of their work, like any artist should or might.”
One particular film amongst Mann’s filmography is The Keep, a strange dreamlike horror film about Nazis accidentally summoning an ancient evil. In retrospect it was way ahead of its time, serving as a precursor to the Nazi sub-genre that has become a staple component of modern horror. But in 1983, it failed to find its audience and all but fell into obscurity. Nevertheless the years have been kind to it, and The Keep now enjoys a revered cult status.
When asked whether fans can expect to see the film re-released on Blu-ray, Mann quips, “I doubt it! That film tragically never got to be what I had wanted it to be, for a number of reasons. One of the most tragic things is that my spectacular visual effects supervisor died very early on in post-production and we could never figure out how the components he did were supposed to come together. And so to answer your question, I do not think so.”
And with that, Mann ends our conversation by revealing that one of his favourite Australian films is The Proposition, starring Guy Pearce. “The movie’s fantastic. I loved it. It was spectacular,” adding “and I look forward to seeing the new Kelly film, in fact I’m going to see it soon.”
The definitive edition of The Last of the Mohicans is available on Blu-ray and DVD alongside the theatrical version on September 4. The release also features exclusive commentary from Michael Mann as well as a behind-the-scenes ‘making-of’ bonus feature.