From the Vaults: 'The Last of the Mohicans' (1920)
Note: Larry's Daily Mirror posts this year focus on clips from 1920 and 1960, so I will be watching movies from those years and writing about them on alternate weeks. After last week’s post on Roger Corman’s “The Little Shop of Horrors,” Mr. Corman netted an honorary Oscar, so these writings are clearly very influential! Suggestions of films are quite welcome.
Two words I never thought would come up in a review of “The Last of the Mohicans” (1920, directed by Clarence Brown and Maurice Tourneur): Onscreen infanticide! What a surprising movie.
I was all set for 70 minutes of Boy Scout action, with lots of tramping through the woods and maybe some close-ups of moccasin prints. But the movie is both lavishly romantic and over-the-top violent. It’s even got Boris Karloff in it, of all people. (Its Wikipedia page claims that Bela Lugosi is in it also, but the good writers there seem to have confused this film with a German version – released the same year – in which Lugosi stars as Chingachgook.)
Screenwriter Robert Dillon makes free with James Fenimore Cooper’s novel. The basic structure is similar: Two white women are escorted through the woods by a pair of Indians and their faithful companion Leatherstocking (or Lederstrumpf, as they say in Germany). But interestingly, the role of big white hero Leatherstocking has been reduced to almost nothing; he’s pretty much just a sidekick to Mohican Chingachgook (Theodore Lorch) and his son Uncas (Alan Roscoe). The trio tries to protect the girls from evil Huron warrior Magua (Wallace Beery – isn’t that a great name?), with varying degrees of success.
The scenery and composition are gorgeous. I particularly love a sequence when the heroes are hiding in a cave from Magua, and the cave mouth frames a series of beautiful shots: Uncas lounging in the doorway as Cora (Barbara Bedford, as still and beautiful as a sculpture) watches him yearningly; the sunset outside; Magua’s warriors creeping by; the terrified group hiding within.
Also fantastic is a later scene when Magua’s lethal band (mad with fire-water from the French, we’re told) overruns the abandoned Ft. William Henry, swarming into a hospital room full of wounded British soldiers too weak to leave the fort. Their shadowy figures gradually fill the confined space, and the silence makes it tremendously eerie. I just loved it.
And yeah, graphic onscreen infanticide! One of Magua’s warriors menaces a British woman with a newborn, creeping up on her with a knife, then just yanks the baby from her arms and flings it into the air. You really don’t get that in your modern films. There’s also an impressive scene of Huron warriors stepping over rows of dead and dying, pausing to collect scalps. I expected things to be more sanitized.
The romance in the film is similarly delirious: the attraction between Uncas and Cora springs up out of nowhere and involves little more than a few searing glances, but its spirit permeates the whole thing. It is a romance, after all; a completely unrealistic epic, a white author’s fever dream about the American continent and the Europeans’ place in it. (I’ve never actually read the book, although I’m a huge fan of Mark Twain’s essay “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” )
The movie has a kind of dream logic (a quality I would argue it shares with the 1992 version). Not a whole lot of it makes sense, but somehow you don’t mind.
Politically, of course, the story’s problematic. The natives are described as “savages” and Cora and Uncas’ romance, being cross-racial, is impossible. (Al Roscoe and all the other actors are clearly white under the makeup, of course.)
Magua’s white face paint, delineating exaggerated features, struck me as downright minstrelsy. A clifftop sequence at the end, while gorgeous and genuinely heartstopping, seems lifted straight from “Birth of a Nation.” And I was interested anew in how none of the Native American characters have their own motivation about anything, not even Magua; they’re all just pawns of the French and British. But political issues are pretty much to be expected going in. For me they mostly dissolved against the romance/high camp.
One particularly fun thing about this movie is that the title cards rarely involve actual dialogue. The characters will chat it up onscreen for several minutes, and then the title card will say something extremely vague, like this: “The eternal spirit of youth, joying while it may – heedless of the gathering storm.” (The title cards have been redone, I’m told, but I’m not sure if the Netflix version I saw has the original ones.) It would be fun to watch this with a group and supply your own dialogue.
My favorite unexplained moment comes toward the end, as brave Cora has just offered herself in a prisoner exchange for her sister Alice (Lillian Hall). Leatherstocking (Harry Lorraine) comes up and speaks to Cora at some length. They’ve never talked before and you just have no idea what he might be saying: “Think of England?” “Do you have any gum?” Finally Cora, never looking at him, reaches up and gently turns his face away from hers, as absently as if he were a housefly. There’s no title card, and they don’t talk again. It’s bizarre and really incredibly endearing.
-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon
Photo: Maurice Tourneur Productions.
[Note: “Mohicans” was filmed in Los Angeles about August 1920. It opened in New York on Jan. 2, 1921, and wasn’t shown in Los Angeles until April 10, 1921—lrh]