Sunday, May 20, 2007

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1936)

I must preface this review by saying that, despite having a Master's degree in English and having taught American literature in the past, I have never read a single page of James Fennimore Cooper, and even more heretical for modern-day movie fans, I have never seen the recent Daniel Day-Lewis version of the story. So I came to this film with few expectations and I enjoyed it immensely. The setting is New York State in 1757, during the French and Indian Wars, in which the British were battling the French, who were allied with the Huron Indians. The somewhat foppish British Major Hayward (Henry Wilcoxon) is asked to take the Munro sisters, Alice (Binnie Barnes) and Cora (Heather Angel), to their father who is the commander of troops at Fort Henry. The Indian Magua (Bruce Cabot), who was born a Huron but made a blood brother of the vanishing Mohican tribe, agrees to lead them, but Hawkeye (Randolph Scott), a white American scout who was raised by Indians, is suspicious of Magua. Even though he doesn't get along with Hayward, he and his Mohican friends Uncas (Philip Reed) and Chingachgook (Robert Barrat), who are the last survivors of the tribe (killed off by the Hurons), follow at a distance. Sure enough, Magua, in leading his party down a side trail that he claims will save time, is actually sending them into a trap from which Hawkeye and friends save them.

As the group continues on to the besieged fort, it's clear that Alice, despite being more or less promised to Hayward, is growing sweet on Hawkeye, and Cora, despite being lusted after by the traitor Magua (and despite the Production Code's strictures against portraying "miscegenation"), is growing sweet on Uncas. At the fort, the French, in possession of a note from British forces that instructs the British troops to surrender, work out a deal to let the men leave with their arms, but the Hurons scalp and slaughter them anyway, and take the sisters. Cora is rescued by Uncas, but both ultimately meet a tragic fate together, leading to an interesting scene of a burial ceremony that unites Christian and Indian rites. Hawkeye decides to give himself up as a sacrifice to free Alice, but Hayward knocks him out, puts on his clothes, and goes off to do the sacrificing, posing as Hawkeye. After some wild Indian dancing, the scourging of Hawkeye, and a threatened burning at the stake, Hawkeye prevails and even makes a friend of Hayward (and maybe someday a wife of Alice). Most of the actors are top-notch, with the exception of the bland Barnes; Scott, who can sometimes be a bit wooden, is at his absolute best here. Cabot is quite savage (and sometimes a little sexy), Reed is silent and strong, and Wilcoxon is good at striking a balance between being hissable and likeable. At 90 minutes, the action never stops, albeit 1930's Hollywood action, which may seem somewhat slow going to today's audiences. A most enjoyable movie which has given me new respect for Randolph Scott and should be out on DVD. [TCM]

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