Thursday, April 25, 2019

The NFR Project #71: 'The Last of the Mohicans' (1920), or: Political Incorrectness in the Big Woods

Wallace Beery captures Lillian Hall in The Last of the Mohicans.
The Last of the Mohicans is another difficult “classic.” The 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper is enshrined as the first Great American Novel. It is almost more famous as the focus of Mark Twain’s immortal and incendiary 1895 critical thrashing, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Mohicans has been dug up, re-examined, re-interpreted, lauded or hooted at, and returned to the grave several times in literary history. It is reviled today by the right-thinking due to its inherent racism, its endorsement of Manifest Destiny, its obsession with the perils of what was termed miscegenation. Wait a minute — maybe that’s what MAKES it the Great American Novel.

The Last of the Mohicans
Dir: Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown
Scr: Robert A. Dillon
Phot: Philip R. Du Bois, Charles Van Enger
Premiere: November 21, 1920
73 min.

Like it or not, we are stuck with it on our reading lists. As poorly written as it is, as wooden as the characters are, it is what we used to call a “rip-snorter.” It’s set during the French and Indian War, 1757, and has some basis in historical fact . . . making it, fittingly, the first notable “based on a true story” trope as well.

The basic plot is the effort to get two sisters, comely and of marriageable age, Alice and Cora, to their father, a British colonel who commands a frontier fort. The evil mainspring of the plot is Magua, a crafty and deceitful Huron who desires vengeance against Cora’s father for hooking him on that ol’ white lightning, and who develops a hankering for Cora. The ensuing complex of chases, rescues, captures, sieges, combat, torture, massacre, and whatnot crowd the pages.

This is a basically a battle over the ovaries of the young ladies involved. Cora and Alice are half-sisters. Alice is blond, and betrothed to dashing young Major Duncan Heyward, who is also a bit of a thickie. Cora has dark hair — due to her vaguely, miniscule yet significant amount of West Indies blood! — that drives Magua ka-ray-zay. It is this Cora-inspired lust that places all of them in peril, again and again, and eventually gets three people killed. Wombs are treacherous.

Working on the side of the angels, fortunately, are the prototypical calm, noble savages Chingachgook and Uncas (the latter our titular, doomed hero), and Natty Bumppo aka Hawkeye, a frontiersman with superhuman powers — he can hunt, shoot, fight, canoe, leap, stab, and presumably go to the bathroom with greater strength, agility, and speed than any man in fiction. The Last of the Mohicans may not be a Great American Novel, but it is the first Great American Action Movie.

This is the first of three Hollywood runs at the tome. Behind the camera was Maurice Tourneur, a prestige artist three of whose films — The Wishing RingThe Poor Little Rich Girl, and The Blue Bird — precede this entry on the National Film Registry list. Tourneur got through about 40 percent of the filming when illness forced him off the project. Into his place stepped his editor and second-unit man Clarence Brown. This turned out to be Brown’s big break.

It’s interesting to guess at who shot what. Tourneur used a very stage-picture kind of look in his films, with plenty of visual cues placed to create a sense of depth. Brown’s shots are very flat and functional, two-shots that emphasize emotion and relation. (Brown would later become Garbo and Crawford’s go-to director.) This is the reverse of later Hollywood habit, when second units were sent to do the action sequences and links, and the name directors stayed in the studio with the lead performers.

Their joint creation works well, moving briskly from one picturesque sequence to another (much shooting was done at Big Bear Lake and in Yosemite). There are stunts, explosions, a bit of gore, even a little baby-tossing. The problem of miscegenation is stated boldly; unlike in the novel, there is an unconsummated passion displayed between Cora and Uncas that makes their movie-logic doom all the more certain. Sure, Magua (Wallace Beery!) gets it in the neck, but not before we are shown a dying Uncas crawling to the body of Cora, and twining his fingers with her, before expiring.

Of course, it is condescending (an intertitle describes Uncas’ “simple words of a savage – yet revealing depths of thought and imagination”) and white actors in “redface” play Native Americans (Boris Karloff is in there, somewhere). This it has in common with other films of period, ones we’ve covered previously: Traffic in SoulsBroken BlossomsBirth of a Nation. It was symptomatic of the time, but still deserving of study.

And the text is not as irredeemable as it seems. Though the 1936 version, starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye, reiterates the conceits of the original, take a look at Michael Mann’s 1992 adaptation. Mann is not a director we associate with pastoral settings (ThiefManhunterHeatThe Insider) but he makes something compelling, visceral, and questioning of the narrative. Daniel Day-Lewis trained for the role of Hawkeye by legendarily going off into the forest and living off it for a few months before filming, just to get into the right frame of mind. He goes for authenticity, employing nearly 1,000 Native American actors.

The result stands the fairly narrow ideas of Cooper and gets them to resonate. Tourneur and Brown’s version is beautiful, but rings hollow.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Making of an American.’