Writer: Richard Schayer, loosely based on the Leatherstocking Tales novels by James Fenimore Cooper
Stars: George Montgomery and Brenda Marshall
The novel was a historical romance, written in 1826 but set in 1757 during what North Americans call the ‘French and Indian War’ but Europeans the ‘Seven Years’ War’. Most of it is spent in the wilderness of upper New York. The French, under the command of General Montcalm, are besieging the British garrison of Fort William Henry on Lake George, but the daughters of Colonel George Munro, the fort’s commander, are on their way to him, accompanied by a relief column led by Major Duncan Heywood. Both sides in this conflict are reliant on Native American allies but Magua, the guide for those reinforcements, is a traitor who’s working for the French and he tries to lead the British into danger. Luckily they meet up with the frontiersman, Natty Bumppo; his travelling companion, Chingachgook; and the latter’s son, Uncas, the titular last of the Mohicans. From there, the novel involves deception and disguise, intrigue and action, battle and massacre. It’s one of the most popular and enduring works of American fiction.
Those familiar with the source material will see it changed so much that it’s almost a different story, while those who haven’t read it probably won’t care, as it will play just like any other historical adventure they’ve seen from Hollywood. We often laugh today at the historical inaccuracies of Hollywood, as epitomised by Peter Traquair’s famous line about Mel Gibson’s William Wallace being a ‘wild and hairy highlander painted with woad (1,000 years too late) running amok in a tartan kilt (500 years too early)’, but this is a time honoured problem. Only eight years before this film, George M. Cohan attended the premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic of his life and is reported to have said, ‘Good picture. Who’s it about?’ I’m sure many who saw The Iroquois Trail in theatres had read The Last of the Mohicans in school but I wonder how many connected it to the film, especially as the credits cite Leatherstocking Tales as the source rather than any particular one of the five novels that that title includes.
If that approach suggests a worthy story that we can get our teeth into, I have to disappoint. While we do feel like we’re caught up in the sweep of history during a time in which characters feel that history is being made around them, it’s mostly just a backdrop for the usual Hollywood shenanigans: a traditionally iconic leading man and the inevitable love triangle. I liked Montgomery a lot here, but he’s going for that. He’s only half playing the character of Hawkeye and half playing a matinee idol playing Hawkeye. His boyish good looks and easy going charm reminded me of Elvis Presley enough that I half expected him to break out into song, but a number of other names came easily to mind too. His Hawkeye is a swashbuckling hero who’s too laid back to buckle any swashes, somewhat like Charlie Sheen playing Errol Flynn, but there is a serious undercurrent that shows up occasionally that reminds of a young Lawrence Tierney and that sense of danger that he so ably carried with him.
Given that he’s a talented frontiersman, he soon tracks Tom’s killer and he presses him for information but is forced to kill him and escape the scene on a stolen British officer’s horse. Now the British have a thousand dollars on his head, dead or alive, and he has to sign up with them to follow Ogane, the only lead he has left. He and Sagamore seize an opportunity to ride north alongside Captain West and Marion Thorne, not to help out the British or fight in their war but to see what Ogane is up to. The fact that the two goals end up in alignment is mere coincidence from his perspective. Of course, he ends up saving the lives of the other leads. Of course, he scuppers Ogane’s plans on more than one occasion. Of course, his disobeying of orders prompts the British to listen to the trusted Ogane over him. As we head towards the famous massacre, the script becomes even more predictable and it’s both easy to see where we’re going and easy to follow Hawkeye into such predictability with relish.
If Marshall couldn’t do much with Marion because she’s a weak character, Glenn Langan does less as Capt. Jonathan West because he’s just another British officer and he just does what a thousand other actors would have done in his shoes. He isn’t bad, but he’s unable to do anything memorable. That’s really left for the Native American roles, because this is 1950 and Hollywood was still as racist in its casting decisions as the British are to the ‘colonials’ for the majority of this film. There were Native American actors in classic Hollywood, just as there were Asian actors and actors of colour, but that didn’t stop the studios from relegating their talent to the lower characters on the credits list and giving white actors the bigger parts. Filmgoers are usually horrified nowadays by the idea of white actors in blackface, but seem surprised by similar concepts like yellowface and redface, which is personified here by a horrendous showing by Sheldon Leonard as Ogane. Monte Blue, on the other hand, is surprisingly decent as Sagamore.
Monte Blue does better as Sagamore but that’s mostly because he was more appropriate for the role. He started in Hollywood back in the teens and worked as an extra or stuntman in early films as important as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. He grew to play romantic leads opposite many of the leading ladies of the day, like Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow. He was memorable in Orphans of the Storm and White Shadows in the South Seas, amongst a long list of credits. By this point in his career, he’d made over two hundred and fifty movies, which span the map of genres and include titles as prominent as Dodge City, The Mask of Dimitrios and Key Largo, but he was increasingly cast in westerns. All that I knew, but what I didn’t realise until now was that Monte Blue was really Gerard Montgomery Bluefeather, at least a quarter Native American, given that his father was half French and half Cherokee or Osage. Monte Blue brought a grounding, patience and tolerance to this picture that was sorely needed.