Saturday 4 August 2007

The Last of the Mohicans (1936) George B Seitz

It's 1757 and the Brits are fighting the French again, the war raging across three continents. It spreads as far as North America where Fort William Henry is under siege by the French and Huron Indians. The lovely daughters of the British Commander, Colonel Munro, are escorted by Major Heyward to join him at the fort but naturally plans are afoot to lead them astray, by their guide Magua. Just as naturally there are also good guys to the rescue, though they really haven't got anything to do with the war being colonials and Indians. They are frontiersman Natty Bumppo, known as Hawkeye, an Indian called Chingachgook and his son Uncas, who is the last of the Mohicans of the title.

I haven't read James Fenimore Cooper's series of Leatherstocking Tales, of which this is the most famous, so I can't speak to how authentic it is to the book. However from what I have read, it's truer to the source than the more recent adaptation with Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye. It plays well and believable, though there are plenty of opportunities to leap into the bound of incredulity. However every time Hawkeye makes an obvious fake trail to distract the trailing Hurons, the Hurons see it for what it really is. Every time he knows where they can shelter two minutes away from where they happen to be at a particular moment, it turns out to be burned out.

Randolph Scott, veteran of many a western, is highly believable as Hawkeye, though of course this is 1936 and so he's playing the cleanest, best dressed, best groomed and goshdarnit politest frontiersman you'll probably ever see on film. Apparently the dialogue closely adheres to the book but Scott changed some of it to feel more natural and it works. Binnie Barnes is excellent as the Colonel's eldest daughter and the most human of the old worlders, most of whom are as unfair and out of touch as Major Heyward, played ably by Henry Wilcoxon, who could do this sort of thing in his sleep. Younger daughter Cora, played by Heather Angel, is pretty but pretty pointless too and Robert Barrat is a little embarrassing as Chingachgook. He looks far more Indian than Bruce Cabot as Magua, but sounds more like Charlie Chan.

The story gets going pretty quickly and it's full of action, in the great matinee tradition, very visual and very emphatic as a true American ripping yarn. It has a more depth and attention to detail than most, which is admirable, but I couldn't help but feel that it had a lot more to tell without the time to tell it. As it stands though, there are plenty worse things you could be watching on a Saturday morning.

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