Daniel Day-Lewis is well known for going to extremes in preparation for his roles. For this film he lived in the wilderness where his character might have lived, hunting and fishing and living off the land for several months prior to shooting.
Many long nights were spent filming the siege scenes. Due to the expansive area involved, loudspeakers were installed around the battlefield and fort so directions could be easily given to the hundreds of cast and crew. One night after many long hours, Mann was heard to shout over the speakers, "What's that orange light? Turn out that orange light!" After a pause another voice (an A.D.?) came over the speakers stating, "That's the SUN, Michael."
By most accounts, there were on average at least 20 takes for each set-up. Such lengthy shootings (and the ensuing costs) would account for 20th Century Fox sending a Rep to do nothing except stand behind Mann and say, "That's enough Michael, move on."
One of the reasons Michael Mann decided to shoot the film in North Carolina instead of New York was that he felt the woods of North Carolina looked more like the old-growth forests of the Adirondacks, which still show evidence of logging during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the scenes were shot at Biltmore, George Vanderbilt's North Carolina estate; the forest in the estate was carefully planned and planted about 100 years ago.
There are three versions with three different running times: the original 1992 release 112 minute version, the 2001 117 minute director's expanded version, and a 2010 director's definitive cut at 114 minutes.
The film was originally scheduled for a summer 1992 release, as the teaser posters said, but when Michael Mann's first version clocked in at three hours, he was told by Fox to cut the film down and the release was postponed to September. Mann was never happy with the resulting two-hour version, feeling he had not had enough time to properly trim it, and so Fox allowed him to re-edit it entirely for the 1999 DVD release. Although only a few minutes longer, the new version features minor changes throughout the film. It is Mann's preferred version and the only one available on DVD in the US.
In Cooper's book, the character Cora was of mixed race-her father being Col.Munro and her mother, a woman of African heritage, though not a slave. Madeline Stowe is of English, German, and Costa Rican ancestry.
Madeleine Stowe appeared in a TV movie as another heroine based on character from a James Fenimore Cooper novel, "The Deerslayer" (1978) which along with "Last of the Mohicans" is part of "The Leatherstocking Tales" with the main character of Natty Bumppo who is referred to as Hawkeye, Deerslayer, and Pathfinder in various books within the series.
Montcalm orders a "Capitain le Bougainville" to read the captured dispatch from Gen. Webb to Col. Munro. This is almost certainly Louis-Antoine le Bougainville, a French nobleman, soldier, diplomat, and explorer. After serving as Munro's aide-de-camp during the siege of Ft William Henry during the Seven Years' War, le Bougainville went on to distinguish himself by organizing the relocation of the Acadians to Louisiana, commanding the first circumnavigation by a French fleet, and serving with distinction in the French Navy during the American Revolution.
Hawkeye's rifle is a beautiful example of the classic Pennsylvania long rifle - which is all too frequently misnamed the "Kentucky" rifle. Considered by many to be among the most beautiful firearms ever crafted, Pennsylvania long rifles often feature a small lock, long, slim, graceful lines, and beautifully carved "tiger" maple stocks. The dramatically down-turned "Roman-nosed" stock is a hallmark of the Allentown-Bethlehem area school, the rifle in the film being very similar to works created by several well-known gunsmiths from that tradition in 18th and early 19th century. Hermann Rupp, John Rupp, and Jacob Kuntz were among some of the well-known practitioners of this style; an excellent and gorgeous example of the Kuntz's craftsmanship can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
When the film was pushed back from its original summer release in 1992 to September, Composer Randy Edelman was brought in to provide additional music after Trevor Jones could not return to the film due to other commitments after having written about fifty minutes of music to rework his score from the film's original three hour cut. Edelman would provide about twenty-eight-and-a-half minutes. Edelman was then in charge of assembling the music for the new cut of the film which clocked in at about 114 minutes which included Jones' music, Edelman's, and all the source material by Daniel Lanois and Clannad. Jones and Edelman did not work together on the score which is why their names on the credits are separate from one another. The subsequent soundtrack album also represents this as Jones' music is separated from Edelman's as the album's first half is Jones' score followed by Edelman's and ending with Clannad's song to round it out. All told with their musical contributions to the film, Jones and Edelman's score combined round out to approximately seventy-eight minutes without the source music.
During the siege scenes, large mortars are seen to fire huge cannon balls at the fort. On one day while attempting to capture the projectiles arcing through the air, basketballs spray painted black were actually fired from the mortars. Problem was, most of them either burned up in the barrel or briefly flamed in the air for several feet before falling to earth.
The drummer during the march just before the attack by the Huron war party has "Nec Aspera Terrant" embroidered on his hat, which means "Difficulties be damned" (other meanings or translations are often used for this motto, it must be noted.) Sometimes it can mean no fear on earth.
Mike Phillips character is listed as "Sachem" in the end credits. This is not a name; it is a title that means "elder", "wise one", or "chief". The character's actual name is "Tamenund", although this name is never used in the film.
According to Randy Edelman's 1996 Film Score Monthly interview, he came on board because of creative differences between Trevor Jones and Michael Mann which forced Jones off the project. "The movie was over budget, there was a mess with the studio, etc. The only reason Morgan Creek got the rights to not just the music and the album but all the overseas rights is because the whole situation was out of control. Daniel Day-Lewis was a big box-office star having won the best actor Oscar only two years earlier for 'My Left Foot'."
Although the Ft. William Henry massacre actually took place, historical fact differs somewhat from historical fiction. A Col. Munro was in command at the fort and did indeed surrender to Montcalm when General Webb could not arrive in time to reinforce him. The attack by the Hurons after the surrender was directed at the colonial militia and its Indian allies. Munro and the British regulars were at the head of the column under the protection of French soldiers and did not know that the column had been attacked until they arrived at Ft. Edward. James Fenimore Cooper based his novel on reports from survivors of the attack. The British used the attack to stir up the colonials to join in the fight against the French. In all versions of the movie except this one, Munro survives and is saved by Hawkeye. Munroe survived in real life as well.
In the original theatrical film, after Major Duncan Heyward tells Hawkeye that he will have him beaten from the fort, Hawkeye responds by saying, "Someday, I think you and I are going to have a serious disagreement." The Director's Expanded Edition of the film however has no such line. Michael Mann removed it after deciding that it gave away too much before the two's argument over who should be killed in the place of Cora. Interestingly, Mann replaced the line for the Director's Definitive Cut (released on Blu-ray).