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Race in The Last of the Mohicans & its Major Motion Picture Adaptions

2,886 words

10.-The-Last-of-the-Mohicans [1]James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel The Last of the Mohicans has been adapted to film or television many times, most notably by director Michael Mann in 1992. Mr. Mann’s version of the story was based more on the 1936 film (written by Philip Dunne and directed by George Seitz) than on the original novel. The reason for this is murky, and the development of Dunne’s screenplay even murkier. However, plotting how the story has evolved from landmark American literature to major motion picture is extremely instructive and enlightening with regard to popular attitudes towards the white race. And it isn’t good. 

The original Last of the Mohicans has much going for it: a relentless plot, cliffhanger chapter endings, distinct and well-developed characters, unflinching realism, believable romance, compelling backstories, an abhorrent yet fascinating villain, a majestic geographical backdrop, a consequential historical setting (1757 New York during the French and Indian War), and, perhaps most importantly, an element of pioneer mythology in the character of Natty “Hawkeye” Bumppo. It’s a classic for a reason, and I see no reason why any film adaptation should stray far from Cooper’s original story.

But stray they did.

The 1936 film is a fairly pedestrian and forgettable effort. The pacing plods but moves along competently. The direction and camera work remain admirably unobtrusive yet offer few surprises. The soundtrack is annoyingly typical of its time. Randolph Scott and Henry Wilcoxon turn in serviceable performances as Hawkeye and Major Duncan Heyward, respectively. Bruce Cabot as the Indian villain Magua and Philip Reed as the young Mohican Uncas are almost comically wooden. The remaining performances seem tolerable given the standards of the day. On the bright side, Robert Barrat offers an expressive portrayal of the old Mohican Chingachgook. There’s also some intense action later on with the Indians. At the very least, the 1936 adaption of The Last of the Mohicans is not boring.

Most notably, the 1936 adaptation rearranges most of Cooper’s story and introduces entirely new elements and themes. There’s the tension between the settler militia and the British army, which didn’t exist in the novel. There’s Natty Bumppo as criminal, who encourages the settlers to desert Fort William Henry to protect their families from Indian raids. Cooper’s backstory of Colonel Munro’s older daughter Cora is completely dropped (she’s the product of Munro and mulatto woman from the West Indies). As such, Cooper’s dooming Cora’s miscegenetic love for Uncas at the end of the novel loses important thematic and racial dimensions in the film.

Most importantly from a literary perspective, Hawkeye is now introduced as a romantic lead, vying with Heyward for the affections of Alice, Munro’s younger daughter (who, unlike her sister, is entirely white). In the novel, Natty Bumppo embodied the frontier, the white man’s slow and painful effort to hew civilization out of the rock and forest of a savage land. He also embodied the place of the white man vis-à-vis the Indians: as a respectful partner but never as a subordinate. Hawkeye recognizes the many “gifts” of the Indians that the white man lacks and will defer to Uncas and Chingachgook when appropriate. But more often than not, Hawkeye directs the action, and Chingachgook and Uncas fall faithfully in line.

Such a bigger-than-life character disdains most worldly things other than the clothes on his back and his trusty rifle Killdeer. In the novel The Last of the Mohicans Natty Bumppo shows no interest in romantic love of any kind.

Despite its many revisions, the 1936 adaptation remains faithful to Cooper’s novel in important ways. This devotion will become noteworthy from a racial perspective once we compare this adaptation to the one from 1992. Seitz’s film shares with Cooper’s novel an unspoken respect for the white man, or, more specifically, white men. All of the white characters, including the heroes’ enemy, French General Montcalm, are brave, honorable, and sympathetic. They may err or have flaws, but the overarching harmony among the whites seems embedded in the fearsome and unbroken landscape of the New World . . . even when they are at war with each other.

Also, as in the novel, women struggle little against the supremacy of men. Cora has her moment as she challenges her father’s decision to hang Hawkeye for inciting desertion. In doing so, she reveals her love for Hawkeye to his rival Heyward. But Heyward puts Cora in her place not with chauvinistic bluster or churlish jealousy but with cool reasoning. He sympathizes with her, but states that Hawkeye knew the penalty for desertion, and this being the army, was beyond pardon. To this, Cora has no reasoned response.

Another similarity between novel and film is the treatment of Magua, the Indian villain. In both, he is sullen, duplicitous, bloodthirsty, and unflaggingly evil. In both, he harbors a grudge against Munro for a whipping he received years ago for drunken misbehavior. Cooper may have humanized Magua a little better in the novel, for instance, when Magua reveals to Montcalm the scars he wishes to avenge. Magua also shows an uncharacteristic tenderness towards Cora at the novel’s end. But the difference here is negligible. Magua is the bad guy, regardless of any past white encroachment upon Indian land.

This leads to another important similarity between the novel and the film: the utter savagery of the Indians. Cooper’s description of Indian atrocities after the fall of Fort William Henry are beyond appalling. He depicts an Indian snatching a British babe from its mother’s arms and dashing its brains against a rock. The Indian then buries a hatchet in the mother’s head. Cooper also depicts Indians drinking the blood of the innocent whites they’ve killed. While the film spares us much of these gory particulars, the Indians still swarm the fort with frightening malice. There are also the chaotic scenes later on in which the Indians (especially the women) claw and scratch at their white captives. Remember, the Hurons attacked the defenseless British after the fall of Fort William Henry just because. Their hackles were up and they couldn’t bury their hatchets until they were red with British blood. The French treaty with the British meant nothing to the Indians. This was the case in the novel and in the 1936 film, as it was in real life.

Yes, there is Indian law and customs and honor. But each of these lack the refinement and grace of their English, or, really, European counterparts. An Indian brave will whoop and holler as he scalps his still living enemies. A tribal chieftain will consider right and wrong before determining which captive gets burned at the stake. Contrast this to the pledge of friendship between Montcalm and Munro on Munro’s deathbed. Contrast this with the British officers’ reviewing Hawkeye’s case in light of new evidence. Contrast this with a moving scene from the novel in which Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas were in desperate trouble surrounded by hostile Indians. After seeing an Indian in agony from his injuries, Hawkeye unnecessarily shoots him to put him out of his misery, even though that shot used up all of his powder. His sympathy for another man outweighed the military exigencies all around him.

The whites clearly have the moral edge over the Indians in both works. Even Chingachgook and Uncas, who are loyal, honest, and honorable to the end, take on a kind of white man’s honor, rather than the Indian’s. The price for this, obviously, is their subordination to Hawkeye as their leader. Through this relationship, Cooper is very clear about the racial distinctions between white and Indian. He also makes clear his vision of a peaceful and productive frontier in which the Indians follow the lead of the whites, and not the other way around. While this may be considered racist today, Cooper’s vision is rendered entirely without malice or chauvinism. One of the novel’s most touching moments comes at the end when Hawkeye clasps Chingachgook’s hands and tell him that despite losing Uncas and becoming truly the last of the Mohicans, he is not alone. Although the 1936 adaptation omits this great scene, it apes Cooper’s racial vision quite effectively.

There are two more similarities which may seem of little consequence, but become quite major once we begin discussing the 1992 adaptation. One is that in neither work did the French collude with the Indians to commit atrocities. After Fort William Henry fell to the French with treaty signed, the Indians satiated their bloodlust by massacring the defeated British, including their women, children, and wounded. The French, in many cases tried to stop the Indians, and in some cases simply stayed out of their way. But they did not actively encourage the wholesale slaughter of innocents. This is how it really happened, and both the novel and the 1936 film lay the blame for this cowardly killing at the feet of the Indians where it belongs. The other similarity is that while the French general Montcalm offered generous terms of surrender to the British, he did not allow them to leave the fort with loaded arms.

Fast forward to 1992. This film should be compared more with the 1936 film than with the novel simply because it says early on in the credits that it was based on the 1936 screenplay rather than the novel. So how do they differ?

Well, structurally, very little. The plot, as it unfolds in the 1992 film, resembles closely the plot of the 1936 version, even to the point of lifting patches of dialogue from one to the other. Technically, it’s a big step up from its predecessor, which should come as no surprise given the film’s $40 million budget. Director Michael Mann makes the most of the landscape to give us a sweeping epic in little more than two hours. The soundtrack, which introduces Celtic and Native American themes at interesting and unexpected times, works beautifully. The performances range from solid (Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye) to inspired (Madeline Stowe as Cora and Steven Waddington as Major Duncan Heyward) to downright terrifying (Wes Studi as the villainous Magua). Indeed, with his pockmarked face and sullen, murderous eyes, no actor was better suited to play the villainous Huron than Wes Studi. His performance may have been the best aspect of this incarnation of The Last of the Mohicans.

I won’t say it’s the greatest film ever made. At times its gets slow and overwrought, and the way it supplicates itself to the politically correct mores of the day dates it as much as the technical limitations date the previous film in 1936. Therein lies the tragic deterioration of Cooper’s story along racial lines. Where the 1936 film remained faithful to the pro-white (or at least not anti-white) themes of the novel, the 1992 film betrays them. In fact, Mr. Mann’s film executes an about face from its predecessors on the topic of race by almost entirely villainizing whites.

First of all, the respect for white men in The Last of the Mohicans is all but gone. Duncan Heyward has suddenly been transformed into a self-righteous and supercilious scoundrel. A minor character, General Webb of the British Army, is equally insufferable and dishonest. Colonel Munro becomes much more authoritative and uncaring than in 1936. General Montcalm, once an honorable soldier, is now a snake in the grass. And Hawkeye, although white, now identifies entirely as Indian. Gone are his theological and philosophical ruminations of white men and red men as distinct cosmic entities. Gone is his fraternal relationship with Chingachgook. Now, we have a much younger Hawkeye calling Chingachgook father and Uncas brother. In a brief comment early in the 1936 film, Hawkeye claims to identify as a white man. There is none of that in 1992. Even their difference in dress indicates an aboriginal shift. In 1936, Hawkeye was dressed essentially as Cooper had intended: hunting shirt “ornamented with fringes and tassels” and the always present coon-skin cap. In 1992, however, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Hawkeye reveals almost as much chest as the Indians do. I’m sure much of this was director Michael Mann’s wanting to entice amorous young ladies into the theaters with as many square inches of his hunky English star he could reasonably reveal. But the visual and thematic impact is clear. Hawkeye is more Indian than white. Even when he is fully clothed, he wears the clothes of Indians, not of white men.

The treatment of Magua further distances 1992 from 1936. Wes Studi’s magnificent performance aside (which, for my money, rivals Anthony Perkins’ in Psycho for sheer creepiness and menace), the 1992 Magua is actually made to be somewhat sympathetic. Sure, he’s still a bloodthirsty villain. But here he’s given the opportunity to explain why he is the way he is. Of course, the British had long ago murdered his children and destroyed his village. This inexorably led to his becoming a slave to the Mohawk, who fought for Munro. Consequently, he’s consumed with existential hatred for Munro, whose heart he wishes to remove and whose innocent daughters he wishes to slaughter. (All perfectly reasonable, right? I’m sure Oliver Cromwell wanted just as badly to perform impromptu autopsies on all the Irish he killed.) And since nothing will capture the sympathy of guilt-ridden white America better than sob stories from a non-white ex-slave, whoever was assigned to write that tiresome backstory probably felt that two minutes was all he needed. And he was right. For years, blacks have been making the same excuses for their savage behavior, and hardly anyone in the mainstream calls them out on it. So why wouldn’t the same song and dance work here? Just as long as there is an evil white man—living or dead—pulling the strings behind the curtains, pretty much anything a non-white does can be forgiven.

While Cooper’s story is pure fiction, the events surrounding Fort William Henry and its ultimate fall to the French in 1757 most certainly are not. Historically speaking, Colonel Munro surrendered the fort to General Montcalm on August 8th. Montcalm’s deal was generous: The British could depart from the fort with their colors and unloaded arms. However, Montcalm could not easily control his incensed Indian allies, who first raided the fort to massacre the British wounded and later attacked the column of defenseless British men, women, and children. The death toll was possibly in the thousands by the time the French restored order or the British escaped. To borrow from a popular insurance commercial, if you’re an Indian, you collect scalps. It’s what you do.

The novel and the 1936 film focus on different aspects of the massacre, but essentially agree with history and with each other on two main points. 1) The savage bloodlust of the Indians caused the slaughter, and 2) the British were indeed helpless since they had no functioning firearms.

What makes the 1992 film so insidious is that it reverses these two points for no reason other than to besmirch white people and exonerate Indians. Transmogrifying Heyward and Munro into pig-headed dingbats wasn’t enough, apparently. The filmmakers needed another white villain, so in steps General Montcalm who secretly greenlights Magua’s wicked plan to slaughter the defenseless British after the peace treaty has been signed. Furthermore, during his parley with Colonel Munro, Montcalm grants the absurd and completely unhistorical term of allowing the British to leave the fort fully armed with ammunition. The point of this is twofold: The filmmakers wished to obscure the savagery of the Indians, which was well-known to all when the massacre happened. It is, of course, less savage to attack an armed opponent than an unarmed one. More importantly, they wished to make it seem as if the Indians could beat the British on fair and equal terms.

In the 1992 film, that’s exactly what happened. The Indians descended upon the Redcoats with rifles, hatchets, and knives and mopped the floor with them.

Of course, trained Western military forces have suffered defeats to non-Western forces throughout history, but these are rare. For every Little Big Horn or Isandhlwana, the are countless Western (or, let’s be honest, white) victories over non-whites. That’s just the way it is. According to Victor Davis Hanson’s extremely useful Carnage and Culture, brave and athletic warriors who are full of passion and bloodlust are really no match for trained and well-equipped soldiers of the great European powers. To say that 2,000 whooping and hollering Indians could annihilate an equal number of armed British regulars in open battle is not merely an embellishment. It is not an exaggeration. It is a lie. If the Redcoats could not handle themselves against reckless and undisciplined aboriginals, how could they possibly have established their American colonies to begin with, let alone defeat the French?

It is this vicious, war-painted lie which most condemns the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans as little more than deceptive anti-white propaganda. The film can also be viewed as a symbol of our culture at large which rises to great technical heights but in many cases suffers from a corrosion of character and will. The Last of the Mohicans, which began as a visionary depiction of whites carving out their place in a feral wilderness with their Indian allies, went from glorifying whites in the early 20th century to defaming them at the century’s end. Sure, the 1936 film may have overdone it a bit on its near hagiographic depiction of whites. But at least it didn’t resort to outright lies. In 1992, The Last of the Mohicans was about nothing else.