Saturday 27 August 2016

The Iroquois Trail (1950)

Director: Phil Karlson
Writer: Richard Schayer, loosely based on the Leatherstocking Tales novels by James Fenimore Cooper
Stars: George Montgomery and Brenda Marshall
Wikipedia may say that George Montgomery was born on 29th August, 1916, but his gravestone says the 27th, so I’ll go by that. I’ve too few Montgomerys under my belt, but I wrote in my review of Masterson of Kansas that he was known not only for westerns, but also for playing iconic characters in them. In that film, directed by William Castle before his gimmick days, he was Bat Masterson, a legendary Sheriff of Dodge City. He also played Pat Garrett, one of the Ringo Gang and even the Lone Ranger in a serial made long before the TV show in 1938 (well, sort of). I focused instead on the year of 1950, in which he played a couple of famous trappers: he was the title character in Davy Crockett, Indian Scout, and here he played Hawkeye, the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s pentalogy generally known as the Leatherstocking Tales. While this film does follow the general sweep of the most famous of them, The Last of the Mohicans, it’s far from an adaptation, not least because it changes most of the names and leaves out the title character entirely.

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.
The film retains little but the sweep of it all. We’re still in the Seven Years’ War and Britain is still battling France. Montcalm is still in charge of the French but while he is planning to attack Fort Williams, he hasn’t done so yet and the focus is initially on another fort at Crown Point. Renaming Fort William Henry to Fort Williams isn’t the only namechange on offer. It’s Colonel Eric Thorne in charge there now and he only has one daughter travelling with the men, Marion rather than Cora or Alice. Major Heywood is now Captain Jonathan West, who has loved her for years; Magua is now Ogane, but is otherwise just as treacherous; and Natty Bumppo, the hero of the story, becomes Nat Cutler, even if he’s still regarded by the Native Americans as Hawkeye. His companions shrink down from two to one, Uncas vanishing entirely and Chingachgook now the presumably easier to pronounce Sagamore; he’s also now a Delaware rather than a Mohican. The film’s title, at least, is fair because the consistent road north is the Iroquois Trail.

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.
I found it an odd mixture of ambition and laziness. The canvas is painted much more broadly than the Hollywood norm, perhaps as a consequence of Hawkeye not being a traditional hero. Natty Bumppo in the books was usually in the thick of it but rarely as a real lead. The critic Georg Lukacs compared him to ‘the middling characters of Sir Walter Scott’ in that he’s a mechanism for Cooper to explore history without actually writing it. Modern audiences might think instead of R2D2, who is there for everything important in the Star Wars universe, even though he’s hardly a romantic lead to drive the traditional action. George Lucas famously borrowed that approach from Kurosawa and The Hidden Fortress, but I’m sure someone has written a thesis on how far back it goes, perhaps to Shakespeare. What it means here is that we see the war from the macro scale (disconnected generals sending dispatches that take days to arrive) and the micro scale (as seen through Nat Cutler being a personification of the common man) but not in between.

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.
From the beginning, he’s a man apart. Nat Cutler is a frontiersman who’s been adopted by the Delaware tribe, though he still has a periodic hankering to come home to see mama in her cabin in the woods. By sheer coincidence, his younger brother, Tom Cutler, who had signed up with the British army since he saw Nat last, is the recruit chosen to carry an important dispatch north. General Johnson back in Albany wants Colonel Thorne at Fort Williams to reinforce Crown Point because it’s a clear target for the French. By sheer coincidence, this ride takes Tom right by his mother’s cabin and he’s just popping over the field to see her when one of his companions shoots him in the back and retrieves the dispatch. By, you’ve guessed it, sheer conicidence, Nat finds Tom’s body and brings him home to the cabin, where he lives just long enough to set the spark of the story in motion. The British think Tom’s a traitor, his own killer setting him up for that fall, so it’s up to Nat to both seek revenge and save the day for the good guys.

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.
Brenda Marshall plays Marion Thorne in her final film role, only a decade after her career began. She started out in 1939 with an uncredited role as a secretary in Blackwell’s Island, moved up to the female lead slot for Espionage Agent and The Man Who Talked Too Much, then firmly established herself as a romantic lead in The Sea Hawk, playing opposite Errol Flynn in one of the all time greats of the historical adventure genre. This would have seemed like familiar territory, even separated by so many degrees of latitude, and she’s able to do more than I expected her to get away with. While she is absolutely a damsel in distress, literally being fought over by two strong men (‘Mine!’ proclaims Ogane, pounding his chest in front of four Huron warriors), she does try to avoid the stereotype by fighting back when attacked and even reloading for Hawkeye during one gun battle, because he’s busy rowing a kayak at the time. I appreciated Marshall’s attempts to give Marion actual value but this role is still beneath her.

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.
I’ve seen Leonard in other pictures and enjoyed his work, but then the parts I’ve seen him in were more suited to his middle class New York Jewish upbringing. He played a lot of thugs and heavies in forties crime series, including the Thin Man, Falcon and Joe Palooka series, but he also got odd parts in classics like To Have and Have Not and It’s a Wonderful Life. I don’t remember that he ever played a role as inappropriate as this one, but he was cast in it and he certainly gave it a shot. I don’t even blame him because he’s memorable in his portrayal, but he should never have been cast as a Native American. Ironically, Jay Silverheels had just begun to break the mould in popular culture as the first real Native American star, even if it was through playing Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s stereotypical sidekick. It doesn’t help that whenever Ogane goes back to his tribe, we watch him talk to them but, after he’s fired them up into a frenzy, we cut to overt stock footage of whoopin’ and hollerin’. This and poor rear projection shots hurt the film.

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.
The film begins with routine setup, characters and actions slotting together like jigsaw pieces, but when Nat Cutler joins the story by discovering his brother, Sergeant Tom Cutler, shot by traitors, it gains some power and depth. There’s action and intrigue and betrayal, all the things that we might expect from an adaptation, however loose, of James Fenimore Cooper. Hawkeye has to play along with the war to wreak revenge on the unknown man behind his brother’s death and, as poorly as he takes orders, I enjoyed that process as much as I did the performance of George Montgomery. If the war is the background and Blue the grounding, then Montgomery is the heart of the picture. He’s both part of the story and apart from it, hanging around only as long as his story and ours coincide but doing so with a charm that is difficult to ignore. He’s a quintessential Hollywood movie star cast for his matinee idol looks, but even if he’s performing rather than acting, he’s still well worth watching. Happy birthday, George!

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