Daniel Day-Lewis plays the original frontier hero in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Michael Mann’s muscular adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s American classic and arguably the greatest of the screen version of the novel.
Day-Lewis plays a different kind of Hawkeye: rugged and wild with long flowing hair, a proto-counter culture son of Mother Nature in buckskin, living off the land with his father Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother Uncas (Eric Schweig). They live in harmony with the white settlers of the wilderness, men and families who have left the transplanted European society of the cities to carve out lives of independence, but have distanced themselves from the European struggles for power and control. “I ain’t your scout and I sure ain’t in no damn militia,” says Hawkeye to a British officer attempting to recruit soldier for the war against the French. Then he falls for strong-willed beauty Cora (Madeleine Stowe), a striking English Rose in the New World and the daughter of a British commander, while the younger Uncas is entranced by Cora’s sister Alice (Jodhi May).
With skin like porcelain and the poise of a lady, Stowe offers a Cora whose initial shock at the brutality in this wilderness is replaced by awe and excitement even as the frontier becomes deadly, while Day-Lewis inhabits the film like was raised in the wilderness, alert and aware of every sound, and he moves like a cat when called to action.
Mann’s film more resembles the 1936 screen version, which favors the story of the white couple over the interracial romance, than the original novel, but it is also a portrait of a short-lived time of peaceful coexistence between the early American settlers and the Native Americans and a celebration of the pioneer spirit of new Americans as the country is being born. Though set twenty years before the declaration of independence, Mann offers a portrait of a country and a people who have already redefined themselves.