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THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, 1920
Starring: Wallace Beery, Barbara Bedford, Lillian Hall, Alan Roscoe, Theodore Lorch, James Gordon, Boris Karloff (uncredited)
As Alice and Cora Munro attempt to find their father, a British officer in the French and Indian War, they are set upon by French soldiers and their cohorts, Huron tribesmen led by the evil Magua. Fighting to rescue the women are Chingachgook and his son Uncas, the last of the Mohican tribe, and their white ally, the frontiersman Natty Bumppo, known as Hawkeye.
I wonder what the Mohicans think about the premature extinction of their tribe. Any wave of irritation emanating from Wisconsin or other Mohican dwellings is understandable, but I’d forego historical accuracy, too, for the sake of a character saying “I have seen the last of the Mohicans.”
James Fenimore Cooper’s novel can make for confusion on film, too. The sheer number of characters is daunting, and some of them are hidden by war paint. Luckily, cards in this silent version identify the characters and sometimes their motivations. And Tourneur cast wisely, especially the teenager Barbara Bedford, who gives a compelling performance as courageous Cora Munro, a well-bred girl so ahead of her time that race isn’t an issue.
Be forewarned: the first fifteen minutes or so are perfunctory set-up. When this film takes off in a blaze of Tourneur’s German Expressionism, though, it ROCKS.
The story takes place in the Hudson Valley in 1757 during the French and Indian War. The French army is allied with the Huron, the British army with the Mohican Chief Great Serpent (Theodore Lorch) and his son Uncas (Alan Roscoe). When Uncas arrives at a British fort to warn of an impending attack, he and Cora feel an immediate attraction.
With the Huron Magua (Wallace Beery) leading a well-armed escort party, Cora and her younger sister Alice (Lillian Hall) set out to join their father Colonel Munro (James Gordon) at Fort William Henry. But Magua, nursing a grudge against Munro, takes them prisoner. He gives Cora the ultimate in sexual harassment: be my squaw or I kill your sister. Uncas and his friends rescue them, and the girls safely join their father.
Where is Colonel George Washington when you need him? Due to inadequate defenses, Munro decides to surrender his fort. Despite assurances of safe quarter, Magua and the Huron, drunk on French liquor, slaughter the soldiers, women and children as they trudge out (to the ironic strains of Dvorak’s New World Symphony).
Once again, Magua takes the sisters prisoner; to spare her sister, Cora agrees to go with him. While Magua is attending to their camp, Cora slips away. High on a precarious cliff, she staves him off all through the night by threatening to jump. Uncas arrives, but will he be able to save her?
Probably not. Hollywood wasn’t yet wed to forced happy endings; this one ends as it should. Despite, or perhaps because of the gloom, the film is a fine example of silent screen artistry. The acting is modern, the stunts are sophisticated and the cinematography crackles. Among many highlights are the carefully composed shots of the sisters’ party hiding from Magua in a cave. As is a shot of a horse standing over a dead horse, tenderly nudging her head, during the slaughter scene.
THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS