Friday, November 14, 2014

THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN FILM BLOGATHON: The Last of the Mohicans (1936)

"The British Army has always adapted a new country to England, Sire."

So speaks Major Duncan Hayward, played by Henry Wilcoxon, in 1936s The Last of the Mohicans.  In a few words the dedicated Major summed up the British Empire.  At the time of our story it is early in the Seven Years War, known in North America as the French and Indian Wars.  The end of the conflict would see Great Britain gaining control of New France and the bulk of the North American continent.  

James Fenimore Cooper's wrote his Leatherstocking Tales in the 19th century, but his character of "Hawkeye" (Natty Bumpo), a woodsman of the turbulent mid-1700s typified a new American character - confident and independent.  Cooper's contribution to the new country's psyche is immeasurable, however I find his novels a bit of a slog.  Nature is singularly important to the stories as the environment determines character and plot, but must we hear of every footfall on every fallen leaf?

The movie's adaptation is by John Balderston (Dracula, The Prisoner of Zenda) with the screenplay by Philip Dunne (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, How Green Was My Valley).  Subsequent treatments, including the popular 1992 version, harken back to Dunne's treatment.

The afore mentioned Major Hayward has arrived in Albany with dispatches for Colonel Munro, played by Hugh Buckler, and to become his aide.  Duncan is also hoping that the Colonel's eldest daughter Alice, played by Binnie Barnes, has grown fonder of him in his absence.  She has not, although her reluctance to succumb to his romantic advances does not deter the Major.  The Colonel's younger daughter Cora, played by Heather Angel, is bereaved by the loss of her naval officer fiance.  

Ordered to Fort William Henry on Lake George, Colonel Munro has no qualms about bringing his daughters to the Fort as they are "old campaigners".  Munro trusts his top scout Magua, played by Bruce Cabot, to see to his daughter's safety.  Munro "had to whip" Magua once, but "it made a man out of him".  Magua is a Huron, pretending allegiance to the Mohawk and the British, while he patiently waits for vengeance.

Robert Barrat, Randolph Scott, Philip Reed
Chingachgook, Hawkeye, Uncas

The colonist volunteers have agreed to accompany the British soldiers, but only after heated discussion.  The terms are that they must be allowed to return to protect their families when needed.  Major Hayward is shocked at the outspoken behavior of these colonists, particularly a woodsman named Hawkeye, played by Randolph Scott.  Alice also refers to Hawkeye's arguments as "treasonous".  Hawkeye does not see his actions that way.  His way is that of his Mohican brothers Chingachgook, played by Robert Barrat, and his son Uncas played by Philip Reed. 

Departing from the main party to take a shortcut, Magua and a group of Hurons kidnap Alice, Cora and Major Hayward.  Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas, who are naturally suspicious of Magua, follow and thwart the plan.  After many dangers they arrive at Fort William Henry which is under siege by the French under General Montcalm played by William Stack.  The harrowing journey has opened Alice's eyes and brought her close to Hawkeye.  Uncas has fallen for the delicate Cora.  Chingachgook is disgusted with both his companions.  He admonishes Uncas that "Mohican chief does not wait on squaw" and bemoans the fact that "Hawkeye's heart weak like water."

One thing that holds an empire together, or any group of people, is their rules of conduct or code.  There are moving examples of such fidelity to honour in The Last of the Mohicans.  It is historically accurate that the British were forced to surrender to the French at Fort William Henry and following the surrender, the Huron raided the fort to be driven back by the French.  In our story, Magua is the instigator of the attack and uses the confusion to capture the Munro daughters.  True to his sense of honour, Montcalm begs the forgiveness of the fatally wounded Colonel Munro, offering the return of his sword and amnesty to British officers who wish to participate in the search for Alice and Cora.  The Colonel is equally gallant in his acceptance of the offer.  Try as I might to put a cynical edge to the scene, it moves me still as it did years ago.

Bruce Cabot, Heather Angel
Magua, Cora Munro

The search for the girls separates Hawkeye and Chingachgook from Uncas and Duncan.  Magua has taken Alice and Cora to the Hurons with a request to take Cora as his wife and to kill Alice.  "This one like warrior, she die by fire."  Cora says she would rather perish with her sister and the Chief, (the Sachem) played by William Mong, says that it is her right to choose and she may have until sundown to consider her action.  The feisty Alice is contemptuous of Huron law and is put in her place by Sachem.

Sachem to Magua:  My son, she is not willing.  Manitou has given us a law.

Alice:  What kind of a law could you have?

Sachem:  White squaw, listen.  Our fathers planted corn, hunted deer in these forests many moons before white man's war canoe crossed great salt water.  Our law is good.  It is squaw's right to choose between Magua and fire.

Uncas succeeds in taking Cora from the village.  Duncan has waylaid Hawkeye and disguises himself as the woodsman offering himself in exchange for Alice.  When the genuine Hawkeye appears, the Sachem settles the dispute with a contest of marksmanship which Duncan comes close to winning.  Fortunately (only in the movies!), the fleeing Duncan and Alice come upon colonial volunteers who save Hawkeye from the fire.

Sadly, Uncas and Cora have been pursued to a clifftop by Magua where Uncas is killed and Cora leaps to her death.  Chingachgook and Magua, according to tribal laws, battle in hand-to-hand combat to the death.  Hayward needs to be cautioned by Hawkeye that it is not their prerogative to interfere.  Chingachgook vanguishes Magua, but there is no look of triumph on his face, only sadness at the loss of Uncas.

Ceremonies different in custom, but similar in the search for comfort is the burial of Cora under a cross and Uncas' funeral pyre.

Duncan Hayward:  Father in Heaven, we ask you to receive into your mercy and wisdom this girl who died far from her native shore and the boy who perished to save her.  Amen.  

Chingachgook:  Great Spirit, a warrior goes to you swift and straight as an arrow shot into the sun. Let him take his place at council fire of my tribe, for he is Uncas, my son. Now all my tribe is there, but one - I, Chingachgook - last of Mohicans.

Binnie Barnes, Henry Wilcoxon, Randolph Scott
Alice Munro, Major Duncan Hayward, Hawkeye

The Last of the Mohicans is a grand adventure film that wraps up neatly with our romantic leads coming to an understanding, and former adversaries Hawkeye and Hayward reaching mutual respect.  Hawkeye even signs up to work for the British cause.  We'll talk to him in twenty years to see how he feels about that decision.

For some of the actors in this cast, they played "the" role which always comes first to my mind.  No matter how many crazy Russians (Heroes for Sale), murder victims (The Kennel Murder Case) or military men (They Were Expendable) he has played, Robert Barrat is first and foremost Chingachgook in my heart.  No matter how many times I have and will watch King Kong, Bruce Cabot will always be the Magua of my nightmares.  As for Henry Wilcoxon, someday I may forgive him for arresting Jimmy Stewart in The Greatest Show on Earth


Jeff of The Stalking Moon and Clayton of Phantom Empires have taken over the world!  The blogathon world, that is.  From November 14th - 17th they host The British Empire in Film blogathon.  Day 4 line-up.  Enjoy reading about all of the fabulous movies and the mad dogs and Englishmen. 


  

25 comments:

  1. Boy, you're not kidding about how much the 1992 Michael Man version of MOHICANS (which I love for its action and pictorial beauty) lifts from this earlier version...Russell Means' speech as Chingachgook from the end of the '92 film is pretty much copied word-for-word. I have yet to check this earlier version of the tale out, but it sounds like a lot of fun. Bruce Cabot looks surprisingly good as Magua, and Randolph Scott seems a natural fit for Hawkeye.

    By the way, have you seen the BBC miniseries from the 70s? Despite the lack of authentic Native American actors (and native American accents, ha ha), it's a nicely done version that hews much more closely to Cooper's original story.

    Thanks so much for joining in the blogathon, Caftan Woman!

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    1. I haven't seen the mini-series, but the format would seem very well suited to the sprawling tale. I would like to see how they handled some of the details of Cooper's novel.

      Thanks so much for hosting this blogathon.

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  2. You just can't go wrong with a Philip Dunne screenplay.....this was one of those books that we were supposed to read in school ( but didn't ) and were planning on watching for a history lesson during homeschool ( but never got around to ) and somehow always got put off of our "to watch" list. CW, today you have inspired me to actually put a hold on the film at our library! We'll report back after we see the film, but for now....thanks for the great read!

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    1. Warning! The movie plays better in its original black & white. Don't let the library hand you the colorized version.

      Wish I could be watching it with you.

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  3. Top shelf, as always, CW. I saw the movie before I read the book and will always remember what a grand adventure it was!

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    1. Thanks, FC. I was in my 20s when I got around to reading the book. I was already (overly) familiar with this movie and the Classics Illustrated comic edition.

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  4. I agree that James Feminore Cooper can be tough reading. I trudged through The Last of the Mohicans a few years ago, and it was hard work. I watched the 1992 version first, so I found the original a little slow, even though I am a Randolph Scott fan. Thanks for reminding me that it is a fun movie to watch.

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    1. The '92 film certainly benefited from its cast and the exquisite natural setting. The role of the younger sister was rather limp, but I suppose you can't have everything.

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  5. Hey! I watched this after you announced it as your choice, and boy howdy, it blew me away. I'm shocked that it isn't as talked about and available as it should be. Thanks for participating; this was a great selection and a great post!

    Clayton @ Phantom Empires

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    1. It makes me very happy to have made a new fan for this movie.

      I'm enjoying the blogathon immensely. Thanks for coming up with the idea.

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  6. I haven't seen this version, though the Day-Lewis version is one of my favorite films of more "recent" vintage. You've got me quite interested now, especially as I'm a Randolph Scott fan. :) I recorded this from TCM a while back, just need to make the time for it now!

    Thanks and best wishes,
    Laura

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    1. The old enemy - so many movies, so little time.

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  7. Hi Laura,
    I really enjoyed you review of the 1936 Mohicans which was a nice choice to bring the British Empire Blogathon to her former American colonies. I understand that Michael Mann has even credited his 1992 film as being adapted directly from the Randolph Scott version and not the book. However, I just want to point out that there was an even earlier silent version in 1920 starring Wallace Beery as a malevolent Magua. I have seen and enjoyed all three and (movie-wise) they share the same plot.I highly recommend the silent version which features robust location shooting and strikingly fluid and beautiful cinematography co-directed by Clarence Brown and Maurice Tourneur.
    Thanks.
    Ralph

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  8. Apologies Caftan Woman for addressing you as Laura in error.

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    1. Ralph, I've always liked the name "Laura".

      Thank you very much for your comments. I saw the Brown/Tourneur "Mohicans" a few years ago and was greatly impressed with its telling of the story and the beauty of the film. If I had seen Beery first as Magua, perhaps even Cabot wouldn't frightened me! I hope others will follow up on your recommendation. It's a classic.

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  9. I haven't seen this version either, but am a fan of the 92 one, so reading your great review has reminded me to get to it. I think being a Scott fan, this should be classified as essential viewing for me.

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    1. Definitely! It's a must-see for Scott fans. The Scott-Binnie Barnes relationship is an interesting contrast to the one they will share a couple of years later in "Frontier Marshal". It's an extra treat to see co-stars in a different light.

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  10. Ohh this looks like a treat. I too have only seen the '92 version (which I loved) but no I see how much of a homage that one was I feel obliged to watch the original. I've never actually read the book either (clearly reading lists have changed!) so perhaps I should give that a whirl as well.

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    1. It truly is a treat and I think you'll find it so. As far as the novel, it has some very interesting and non-pc sections that adapters were probably right in omitting. I prefer the Classics Illustrated comic!

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    2. Great write up of one of my favorite films. The 1992 film is quite flashy but is quite silly in places. I loved people running and firing two loaded muskets in each hand, at the same time. After a while, I expected Hawkeye to do a back flip or cartwheel while shooting a bad guy with a flinklock pistol.

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    3. You made me giggle at that imagery, and the memory of my husband shouting at the TV ("Really!" plus assorted deletives).

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  11. I'm familiar with both the 1992 version and the silent, 1920 version, but I had never heard of this version until now! And I also found out where the picture of Randolph Scott with a funny looking hat comes from!
    Thansk for such an interesting write-up!
    Kisses!

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    1. Stalwart heroes are something Scott could play in his sleep. I can't say the hat here doesn't suit him, but we're so used to him in another type of chapeau. I hope you get the chance to add this movie to your list of "Mohican" adaptions soon.

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  12. Randolph Scott on any kind of frontier could do no wrong in my book, and this film confirms that. I like almost all the Edward Small productions from this era. I wish someone could do a book on him sometime. THE SON OF MONTE CRISTO helped form my movie going tastes at a young age, in the best way possible.

    I very much like the 1992 version, though the score has a lot to do with that. I wish this one had an original score. Each time a cue from KING KONG plays, I expect to see a giant gorilla stomp on some Mohicians. I love the canoe chase in this too.

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    1. "The Son of Monte Cristo" is like old home week with all those familiar faces. It makes me smile from beginning to end.

      I don't know at what point in my long association with "The Last of the Mohicans" I finally twigged to where I "heard that song before". It works, but it is sad that an original score wasn't in the budget.

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