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The Last of the Mohicans

The Last of the Mohicans(1920)

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teaser The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

James Fenimore Cooper published his novel The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 in 1826, and when movies were invented the story was a natural, offering fine opportunities for action and historical drama. The first feature-length adaptation came in 1920, when Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown teamed up for a beautifully shot silent movie starring Harry Lorraine as Hawkeye and Wallace Beery as Magua, a Huron tribesman who represents the dark side of Native American life - or rather, Native American life filtered through Hollywood's make-believe mindset. Ethnic authenticity is obviously scarce in a picture where the most dramatic Indian character is played by a highly un-Indian-like actor covered in makeup, but the movie follows Cooper's lead in showing heroic and villainous characters on both sides of the racial divide.

Like the novel, the movie takes place during the French and Indian War, which was the North American branch of the Seven Years War that raged around the world in the middle of the eighteenth century. The story centers on the battle for Fort William Henry, a British stronghold immediately south of Lake George in the colonial province of New York, which the French attacked and reduced to ruins in 1757. Colonel Munro is the English officer in charge of the fort, and we first see him at a dance being held to entertain his troops. His two daughters, Cora and Alice, are also present, and Cora is highly impressed by the noble demeanor of Uncas, the last living warrior of the Mohican tribe, who arrives to warn the colonel that French soldiers and Hurons are on their way to attack the fort. Racism immediately arises in the form of Captain Randolph, who censures Cora for daring to respect a mere savage.

Needing additional troops without delay, Colonel Munro sends the reliable Major Heyward and the Indian runner Magua to convey his request for reinforcements and take his daughters to a safe location. Instead of following orders, Magua seizes Cora and Alice with the help of other Hurons, but the women escape thanks to three virtuous men who happen to be nearby: Great Serpent, the chief of the declining Mohican tribe; Hawkeye, a valiant white hunter and trapper; and trusty Uncas, on whom Cora now has something of a crush. More peeved at Uncas than ever, Captain Randolph sneaks off to the French headquarters and tells about weaknesses in Fort William Henry's defenses. Colonel Munro knows he can't prevail against an attack by the French and Hurons, so he surrenders the stronghold on the condition that women and children get safe passage to a danger-free area. But the French give bottles of "firewater" to the Hurons, who slaughter the civilians and set fire to the fort. Magua then kidnaps the Munro sisters for a second time and seeks refuge with the Delaware tribe just before Uncas and Hawkeye catch up with him. Justice comes to Magua in the end, but not before some of the most sympathetic characters meet their deaths as well.

The Last of the Mohicans is part of The Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five novels that Cooper wrote between 1823 and 1841. The hero of all five is Natty Bumppo, who goes by different names in different installments of the saga. He's called Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans and also in the 1920 film, but the name of the novel's other main character, Chingachgook, is changed to Great Serpent in the movie, probably because the filmmakers felt Chingachgook would be too much of a mouthful for audiences, even in a silent picture. Hawkeye and Chingachgook are extremely important in Cooper's novel, but Robert A. Dillon's screenplay makes them minor characters, putting more attention on the interracial love triangle composed of Cora, Uncas, and Magua, none of whom survive at the end of the story - not too surprising, since even a hint of miscegenation was taboo in Hollywood unless punishment was meted out to those involved. Instead of using the fall of the fort or the massacre of the civilians to provide the movie's climax, the filmmakers cap their story with a highly suspenseful scene showing Magua lustfully pursuing Cora to a slender precipice on a towering mountain, where her last stand strongly resembles that of white, innocent Flora fleeing black, wicked Gus in D.W. Griffith's racist epic The Birth of a Nation, which had become the first American blockbuster in 1915, five years before this movie reached the screen.

Tourneur was the original director of The Last of the Mohicans, but assistant director Brown stepped in when Tourneur was injured during production. Their version makes Magua's evil nature a central driving force of the film, and while this is somewhat balanced out by the portrayal of Uncas as a good and true Mohican brave, that's also a stereotype - the noble savage - with little real thinking behind it. The most successful aspects of the 1920 film are cinematic rather than historical or psychological: the images are beautifully framed, crisply photographed, and gracefully edited. The acting is generally smart as well, with special kudos going to Barbara Bedford and Lillian Hall as Cora and Alice, respectively, plus James Gordon as Colonel Munro and Nelson McDowell in the small role of a preacher who joins the wagon train of refugees. Beery also deserves a nod for making Uncas an effective bad guy, if not a particularly plausible human being. Critics loved the film in 1920, with Motion Picture News calling it "the greatest Indian picture ever shown."

Movies based on The Last of the Mohicans had reached the screen before Tourneur and Brown made their adaptation - a couple of short films arrived as early as 1911 - and others followed in later years, from Hollywood and elsewhere. Randolph Scott played Hawkeye in the version directed by George B. Seitz for United Artists in 1936, which emphasizes the triangle of Hawkeye, Alice, and Heyward over the triangle of Uncas, Cora, and Magua; the British monarch, King George II, also makes an appearance, and Philip Dunne's screenplay has someone call him German George, which surely conjured up modern-day German authoritarianism in the minds of mid-1930s audiences. The most recent major adaptation is the 1992 release directed by Michael Mann, which pairs Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) with Cora (Madeleine Stowe) as a romantic couple and places the tension among Uncas, Alice, and Magua in a subplot. Each adaptation has its own strengths and weaknesses, but for pure visual storytelling and a memorably filmed climax, the silent movie by Tourneur and Brown has proven hard to beat.

Directors: Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown
Producer: Maurice Tourneur
Screenplay: Robert A. Dillon, adapted from the novel by James Fenimore Cooper
Cinematographers: Philip DuBois, Charles Van Enger
Art Direction: Ben Carr, Floyd Mueller
With: Barbara Bedford (Cora), Lillian Hall (Alice), Wallace Beery (Magua), Albert Roscoe (Uncas), Henry Woodward (Major Heyward), James Gordon (Colonel Munro), George Hackathorne (Captain Randolph), Nelson McDowell (David Gamut), Harry Lorraine (Hawkeye), Theodore Lorch (Chingachgook), Jack McDonald Tamenund), Sydney Deane (General Webb)(
BW-73m.

by David Sterritt

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