Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

Director: Maurice Tourneur                              Writer: Robert Dillon
Film Score: Arthur Kay                                   Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Wallace Beery, Barbara Bedford, Alan Roscoe and Henry Woodward

This is a beautifully filmed production of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel. Set in colonial North America during the French and Indian Wars, The Last of the Mohicans has become part of American mythology, perpetuating the idea of the noble savage, the duplicitous Indian, the blindly dutiful British officers, and the superior Americans. Those who are only familiar with the popular film version starring Daniel Day-Lewis will note a marked difference in the film. The title character of the book is the Native American Uncas, the last full-blood Mohawk Indian, and the story is primarily about him rather than the Hawkeye. It is Uncas who falls in love with Cora Muro and saves the two daughters, momentarily, from the clutches of the evil Magua. For 1920 the film is very well photographed and can easily stand alongside films made much later in the decade.

The film begins with Alan Roscoe as Uncas being told to warn the British at Ft. Edwards that the Hurons and French are mounting an attack. At the fort are two daughters of British colonel James Gordon who is at Ft. William Henry. When the older daughter, Barbara Bedford, sees Roscoe she admires him and is quickly chastised for it by a British captain, George Hackathorne. Gordon, in the middle of a fight himself, asks for more troops from Ft. Edwards and Bedford, with younger sister Lillian Hall, makes the trip so they can see their father. Indian guide Wallace Beery is given the task of taking them on a shortcut with British major Henry Woodward along for protection. When Beery abandons them, the party run across Roscoe and his native father, Theodore Lorch, and American Harry Lorraine. The three lead the party to a cave to hide, but eventually have to fight it out with Indians Beery has led to them. Though Beery eventually captures the party, Roscoe helps them escape again and make it to the fort where the girls are reunited with their father.

But all is not well. Hackathorne, who realizes Bedford doesn’t want him and knowing the situation is dire for the fort, cowardly goes over to the other side to avoid death. With the surrender of the fort, Beery and the Hurons make another attack on the women and children making their way back to Ft. Edwards, this time capturing the girls again while the Hurons kill the soldiers and burn Ft. William Henry in a lengthy battle. Once again, Roscoe goes after them to bring the film to its tragic conclusion. French director Maurice Tourneur had come a long way from the films he had been making for Biograph just a few years earlier. By 1920 he was heading his own production company and releasing his pictures independently. His visual style is also much more confident and artistic. Shots like the battle between Beery and Roscoe, as well as the Indian climbing into the covered wagon after the woman and her child are impressive. The exteriors around the cave and in the finale are equally impressive, especially with the color tinting of the film.

As with most films of this kind, the Indians were portrayed by whites. The prolific Wallace Beery plays the villain, Magua, and does a decent job, and Alan Roscoe is equally adept at playing the eponymous Uncas. The real star of the vehicle, though, is Barbara Bedford who had a lengthy film career. This was only her third film, and she worked well into the forties, marrying costar Roscoe a couple years after their work here. She is compelling onscreen and her character is tough, shooting rifles and protecting her sister. And while she falls for Roscoe she doesn’t let it consume her responsibilities. Lillian Hall, as Alice, is not nearly as good, with an exaggerated acting style better suited to the teens than the forward looking style of this production. Boris Karloff was apparently an extra on the film playing an Indian. The Last of the Mohicans is a good, solid, entertaining film. It moves along at a nice pace and never drags, and is certainly deserving of its status as a classic American silent film.

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