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James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel The Last of the Mohicans has been filmed no fewer than six times. The most recent is Michael Mann’s 1992 version starring Daniel Day-Lewis, which itself has seen several different DVD releases; with the “enhanced widescreen” version of the “director’s expanded edition,” it seems that this excellent film has finally received the treatment that it deserves.

Last of the Mohicans, The (DTS)
Movie
Mann’s adaptation of the novel falls into that elite category of truly excellent film adaptations of novels, and is in fact an improvement on the original version. James Fenimore Cooper was the subject of Mark Twain’s scathing criticism in the essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” and while it was The Deerslayer and not The Last of the Mohicans that was Twain’s target in this case, it’s only fair to say that the novel The Last of the Mohicans also suffers from Cooper’s weak pacing and tendency toward the verbose. Yet underneath the prose, the story itself is gripping... and in his film adaptation, Mann brings to life the best and most powerful elements of this story. Any adaptation involves a delicate balancing act between what to leave in and what to omit from the original novel; Mann’s choices result in a film that is largely faithful to the novel, but with an overall effect that is much more powerful for the modern audience than a straight book-to-film version would have been.

In The Last of the Mohicans, we get a glimpse of the tumultuous events in the American colonies during the so-called “French and Indian wars” of the mid-18th century, in which France and England fought over control of the newly-settled lands in North America, with both sides enlisting different Native American tribes to assist them. The complexities of the situation are suggested but not elaborated on in the film, which keeps the focus where it belongs: on the handful of people thrown into circumstances beyond their control. Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) and her sister Alice (Jodhi May) are trying to cross dangerous frontier territory to join their father, the commander of an English fort; when their paths intersect with that of Nathaniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his adopted father Chingachgook (Russell Means) and brother (Eric Schweig) of the Mohican tribe, it soon becomes clear none of them will escape entirely unscathed by the war, if in fact they escape at all.

One of the aspects of The Last of the Mohicans that I found to be particularly well done is the handling of the different Native American tribes. The film realistically depicts the natives as distinct tribes, each with its own agenda, who dealt with the invading Europeans in various ways, from warfare to trade to alliance, and who fought against each other as much as against the French or English. The native characters in the film are handled with dignity and realism, particularly with respect to their language. The characters are all represented on film as speaking the language that they would have spoken in those circumstances in reality; subtitles are provided when the viewer needs to know what’s being said. One scene that I felt was particularly well-done in this respect involves a three-way translation between characters who speak Huron, English, and French. Mann’s skillful direction ensures that the viewer follows the conversation completely, while also preserving the nuances of each speaker in his own language, and at the same time conveying the tension between these representatives of hostile groups.  

A few elements of the story are a bit confusing on the first watching of the film, specifically the relative locations of the different places that the characters visit. This is probably one of the few places where the novel could convey the story more effectively than the filmed version. Still, it’s a minor flaw and doesn’t substantially detract from the storyline.

The Last of the Mohicans is a treat for both eyes and ears. Set in the rugged forest of modern-day upstate New York, the story takes us through breathtaking landscapes, ranging from intense moments in the dense undergrowth of the deep forest to expansive vistas over the hills. The landscapes are more than window dressing, however; they’re essential to capturing the mood and the theme of the film, which touches on the close relationship that Hawkeye and his family have with the rugged land of the frontier. The emphasis on the visual side of the film goes beyond the beautiful backdrop, as well. The strong cast, from Nathaniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) to Cora (Madeleine Stowe) to Wes Studi as the sinister Magua, means that the actors can, and often do, carry the narrative by their wordless expressions and reactions. And to match the beautiful visual side of the film, the music is phenomenal; beautiful, stirring, and also sometimes melancholy, the score highlights the emotional content of the film. The style of music fits the period of the film perfectly, yet also has a timeless quality to it that will cause it to linger in the viewer’s mind afterwards.

As the “director’s expanded edition” of the film, this version includes several minutes of additional footage interspersed throughout the film, which is definitely beneficial to the flow of the film, and helps to fill out some important moments. Even with the additional footage, at slightly under two hours The Last of the Mohicans is fairly short, as epic movies go. Yet it doesn’t feel rushed at all: Mann is to be commended for not falling to the temptation, in what could be described as “epic” material, of making a bloated, overly long film that contained every single incident in Cooper’s novel. Instead, he has created a lean, beautiful film that is extremely satisfying.

Last of the Mohicans, The (DTS)
Video
If there were ever a film that benefited from an improved transfer, The Last of the Mohicans is it. The “enhanced widescreen” edition presents the film in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, a significant improvement over the non-anamorphic earlier edition. The result is a DVD that is almost reference-quality.

The Last of the Mohicans includes one visually-challenging scene after another, making the outstanding transfer all the more impressive. Many scenes throughout the film include vast amounts of fine detail, from tile mosaics to the leaves in the forest, all of which appear perfectly sharp and clear. Contrast is handled extremely well, with subtle detail apparent even in very dimly-lit and dark scenes; this is particularly important since so much of the film takes place in the dark. Colors in the daylight scenes are gorgeous: from the green of the leaves to the red of the British uniforms, the colors are bright, vivid, and accurate.

The transfer is pristine and clear, with absolutely no noise or picture flaws; again, this is particularly impressive since the frequent landscape shots with large expanses of clear blue sky would have made any noise in the picture very apparent. The absence of any digital artifacts indicates that an excellent compression rate was used for this DVD; the extra bits required to do so probably accounts for the lack of special features on the disc. Considering the fine quality of the transfer, I’m perfectly happy to have sacrificed a few special features for it.

The only thing that keeps The Last of the Mohicans from being a “perfect 10” in the video department is that the contrast in certain very specific shots is not perfect. I’m referring here to a few images of a character strongly backlit against a bright, clear sky. The contrast in this situation is certainly satisfactory, but not quite as perfect as the rest of the transfer. Considering how challenging the visuals are throughout the film, to have this be the only slight flaw is impressive in itself.

Audio
With a touch of overkill, this edition includes the English DTS, Dolby 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 soundtracks. I’m not quite sure why all three were included. The previous version of the film had the Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 tracks; for this review I watched the film with the new DTS soundtrack. The default track is the Dolby 5.1, so to get the DTS track you have to select it through the languages menu.

My overall impression is that the DTS sound is good, though not quite up to what it could be. Sound clarity is undeniably excellent, but the volume does fluctuate slightly at times during the film, going from normal to slightly too loud or slightly too soft on a few occasions. The main focus of the soundtrack appears to be in the center speakers, but the full range of surround sound, including the rear speakers, does get used throughout the film. The use of surround is low-key but effective, and includes effects such as shots fired during the battles or birds in the forest.

Extras
As I mentioned in the video section, the special features on The Last of the Mohicans appear to have been sacrificed for improved video quality; though I would have enjoyed some special features, I really can’t complain.

The menus are both practical and attractive, with scenes from the film running behind easy-to-navigate menu choices.

The one “extra” included (though not mentioned on the DVD case) is a home theater calibration guide, which provides test tones and patterns to allow you to check that your setup is configured correctly. This is accessible by selecting “THX Optimode” from the languages menu.

Last of the Mohicans, The (DTS)
Overall
Die-hard special-features junkies may gripe about the lack of extras, but in my book, the quality of the film itself always takes precedence. In that light, The Last of the Mohicans: Enhanced Widescreen edition is an outstanding DVD. If you already own the non-anamorphic version of this film, the “enhanced widescreen” edition absolutely merits an upgrade if you have a widescreen TV; the DTS track makes it worth considering an upgrade even if your current TV is 4:3. And if you don’t have The Last of the Mohicans yet, this edition makes it a must-buy: it’s a great film with a superb transfer.


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