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George B. Seitz's The Last of the Mohicans (1936) may well be the most effective screen adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's classic frontier novel. Randolph Scott delivers a commanding performance as Hawkeye, a brave scout who escorts Maj. Duncan Hayward (Henry Wilcoxon), and Alice and Cora Munro (Binnie Barnes and Heather Angel), the daughters of an Army Commander, through dangerous Indian territory. Two Mohican tribe members, Chingachgook (Robert Barrat), and his son, Uncas (Philip Reed), also take part in the journey. You may recall from your high school literature class that Alice will eventually fall for Hawkeye, and Cora will fall for Uncas...and a vicious Huron Indian named Magua will reek all kinds of havoc. But enough with the Cliffs Notes. It's more interesting if you re-discover the story while watching this remarkable film.
Although Seitz (who directed several installments of MGM's wildly popular Andy Hardy series) brings Cooper's yarn to vivid life, a couple of filmmakers had already tackled the material before him. Theodore Marsden filmed a two-part version of the book way back in 1911, and Maurice Tourneur and Clarence L. Brown also shot an adaptation in 1920. There have been four other interpretations of Cooper's novel since then, with the most recent being Michael Mann's well-received 1992 version starring Daniel Day-Lewis.Some stories seem tailor made for the screen, regardless of the decade or changing audience tastes.
Scott delivers a credible performance as Hawkeye in Seitz's film, in part because he was careful to avoid looking foolish. There were reports that he was unhappy with some of the script's committee-written dialogue, especially the line, "I take my leave when the sun goes down behind yon hill." That line, and several others, were changed, thus saving Scott some embarrassment.
Although Seitz's film pretty much smacks of 1930s Hollywood, a surprising amount of care was taken in getting the little things right- including, oddly enough, the exact process of scalping an enemy combatant. The New York Times noted that research director Ed Lambert prepared for the picture by studying the Remington Schuyler painting, Custer's Last Stand, which depicts an ugly scalping in progressive stages. "There is nothing facetious in this matter," Lambert said, "the action must be correct in every detail to stave off the hordes of (mistake) hunters all over the country." The article also notes that Lambert interviewed the descendants of "this country's outstanding scalpers." That seems a bit above and beyond the call of duty, but, it has to be said, United Artists received no outraged letters from scalping enthusiasts.
A bit of interesting trivia concerning Scott: He was discovered by the young Howard Hughes, and must have learned a thing or two about handling money from the eccentric billionaire. After retiring from pictures in the 1960s, Scott was able to live on the fortune he had amassed from investing in oil wells, real estate, and securities. He was reportedly worth $50-$100 million, back when $1 million was considered a genuine fortune. Not too shabby for an old cowboy.
Producer: Edward Small, Harry M. Goetz
Director: George B. Seitz
Screenplay: Philip Dunne, John L. Balderston, Paul Perez, Daniel Moore (based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper)
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Editing: Jack Dennis, Harry Marker
Music Director: Roy Webb
Art Designer: John DuCasse Schulze
Costume Design by: Franc Smith
Cast: Randolph Scott (Hawkeye), Binnie Barnes (Alice Munro), Heather Angel (Cora Munro), Hugh Buckler (Col. Munro), Henry Wilcoxon (Maj.Duncan Hayward), Bruce Cabot (Magua), Robert Barrat (Chingachgook), Philip Reed (Uncas), Willard Robertson (Capt. Winthrop), Frank McGlynn, Sr. (David Gamut), Will Stanton (Jenkins), William V. Mong (Sachem), Olaf Hytten (King George II).
by Paul Tatara