The Music of the Last of the Mohicans

The Music of the Last of the Mohicans March 19, 2013

Review of The Last of the Mohicans, Directed by Michael Mann

When I was in high school The Last of the Mohicans (1992) made a profound impression on me. Rewatching it two decades later, I think it was all about the music.

The 1992 film that I saw turns out to be a remake of an adaptation of a novel published in 1826 by James Fenimore Cooper. There have been at least eight screen versions of the book, with the 1992 effort being a remake of a 1936 predecessor. What’s more, the book was one of five in a franchise called The Leatherstocking Tales—the ongoing adventures of Hawkeye (who, being white, is not a Mohican and thus not the last).

The Hawkeye of the 1992 movie is a white man who had been adopted and raised by an Indian family in the mid-18th Century. He is thus a uniquely American figure: a frontier warrior, a forest dweller, an outdoorsman, and familiar with the ways of colonial and Indian civilization alike. His white skin and English language allow him to mingle with settlers freely, but his ways of thinking and wilderness skills make him equally comfortable among the tribes of the inner continent.

This Hawkeye is nowhere nearly as well developed or interesting as the Hawkeye of the books. I was prompted to rewatch the movie because I am reading The Deerslayer, the first book of The Leatherstocking Tales (but the last to be written and published. I guess prequels aren’t a new phenomenon). I’ll have a post on The Deerslayer later, but I noted right off that the film derivation of Hawkeye is a pale shadow of his literary source.

The narrative of The Last of the Mohicans follows Hawkeye (played by AbrahamLincoln) and his Indian father and brother as they become entangled in the French and Indian War with both the lives and treachery of British soldiers and the love of the Munro sisters. [Spoiler: the father turns out to be the last Mohican]. It’s an entertaining tale, it’s beautifully shot, and it contains some mesmerizing sequences of epic 18th century forest warfare (with graphic attention to its brutal and violent aspects). I generally enjoy Michael Mann’s movies, which includes the great crime saga Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004)—one of the most underrated movies of the last decade.

Two things struck me as I re-watched the film. First, the music is one of the best movie scores ever. I don’t know how to write about music very well, but if you know the movie you know what I’m talking about. The music is soaring, powerful, romantic, and legendary. The final ten minutes or so of the film contains almost no dialogue: it is simply action set to music, and it works. In this sense, The Last of the Mohicans is akin to the original Star Wars.

The other thing I noted was that the central romance of the story, between Hawkeye and the elder Munro sister, is utterly ridiculous. The two hardly speak a word to each other. Then in one scene, Hawkeye stares at her. For a long, long time. She asks what he’s looking at. “You,” he replies, and goes on staring. She blushes. The soaring, powerful, romantic music swells. They fall in love. For the rest of the movie, whenever the two have a moment, that music cuts in again, and the absurdity of it all is swept away by the tide of that pulsating music. Preposterous—this stuff only happens in movies.

It is ludicrous, but I love it. I confess that I’m a sucker for anything so long as the soundtrack is sufficiently epic. I like to imagine my life set to the tune of The Lord of the Rings or Gladiator.

Is there something meaningful to be found here? Perhaps. God spent one whole book of the Bible giving us a songbook in the Psalms. We are likewise urged to “[speak] to each other in songs, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord,” (Ephesians 5:19). A good part of paradise consists of singing God’s praises.

Music is one of God’s great gifts—an expression of his common grace to all humanity. If music can elevate something as trifling as The Last of the Mohicans, imagine what it does when it accompanies truth itself.

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