Wednesday, December 1, 2021

BOOK/MOVIE: The Last of the Mohicans (1826/1992)



                       So, your evil English teacher has assigned James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  It’s a classic and was very popular back in the day.  The day being the 1800s.  It must be highly entertaining, like all literary classics, right?  I have some bad news.  If you fulfill the requirements of your assignment, you are in for some mind-numbing.  Oh, hell, you know you’re not going to read some dusty old novel.  Lucky for you, there are several movies.  There’s the 1920 silent movie (which there is not a chance in hell you are going to watch), the 1936 Randolph Scott version (Randolph Scott – are you your grandfather?), the 1977 Steve Forrest made-for-TV version (Steve who?), but we all know you are going to watch the 1992 version.  It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, for Christ’s sake.  And it’s rated R.  Good choice, but I have some bad news for you.  The plot of the movie is substantially different from the novel.  Not to worry, I’ll help you avoid a reaming by your teacher.  I’ve read the book for you and trust me, you owe me big time.  And I’ve seen all the movies.  No need to thank me for that.  What follows is a comparison of the book’s plot to the 1992 movie.

                        First, impress your teacher with these facts about the novel.  Its full title is The Last of the Mohicans:  A Narrative of 1757.  Cooper got the idea for the novel on a trip in the Adirondack Mountains.  One of his group suggested that the beautiful falls and caves would make a good setting for a historical romance.  Cooper decided to place his story in the French and Indian War.  Specifically, the siege of Fort William Henry.  The theme he was shooting for was the transition of the frontier from Native American control to colonial control.  The plot highlights the pressure of white expansion on the Indians.

                        The novel opens with the daughters of Col. Munro travelling to reunite with their father at Fort William Henry.   They are chaperoned by a Maj. Duncan Heyward who is interested in the younger daughter, Alice.  They are joined by a singing teacher named Gamut.  They are guided by a Huron Indian named Magua.  Along the way, they encounter Hawkeye (nee Natty Bumppo), Chingachgook, and Uncas.  Chingachgook and Uncas are father and son and the last remnants of the Mohican tribe.  They are suspicious of the motives of Magua, so he flees. 

                        In the movie, we are introduced to Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and Uncas first.  They visit a frontier family to establish that Hawkeye is caught between two worlds.  It also establishes that the frontier is an isolated and dangerous place.  This foreshadows that when the British call out the colonial militia to reinforce Ft. William Henry, this will leave the frontier families vulnerable to Indian attack.  We meet Cora and Alice as they prepare to go to meet their father, escorted by Duncan.  In this case, he is enamored with Cora.  There is no Gamut, thank God.  Magua guides them and a small detachment into an ambush.  They (not the extras) are saved by Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook.

                        In the novel, after Magua runs off, he returns with his warriors to attack Hawkeye et al in a cave they are hiding in.  When they run short of ammunition, Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook escape and the rest are captured.  Magua tells them he is motivated by revenge against Col. Munro.  Munro turned him into an alcoholic and then had him whipped for being an alcoholic.  (In the movie, Magua’s family was killed by soldiers led by Munro so he is determined to kill Munro’s family.)  He is going to force Cora into marrying him, but Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook rescue them.  They spend the night in an abandoned fort and the Hurons bypass it because there is a burial ground.  The group makes it to Ft. William Henry.  Munro sends Hawkeye with a message for the British commander at Fort Edwards, but he gets captured on the way back with a note saying no reinforcements will be coming. 

                        In the movie, after the ambush, they stay for the night in a burial ground and then sneak into the fort.  The romance of Hawkeye and Cora builds.  The French are laying siege to the fort and they are winning.  The film does an excellent job depicting siege warfare.  Hawkeye informs the militia that the Indians are on the war path and their homes and families are in danger.  He is arrested for helping some of them leave the fort and is to be executed. 

                        In both the book and movie, Munro agrees to Montcalm’s terms and surrenders the fort.  On the way out, the troops and camp followers are ambushed by Indians led by Magua.  In the book, Magua captures Alice and Cora during the ambush.  Gamut follows them.  Hawkeye, Uncas, Chingachgook, Munro, and Duncan are in hot pursuit.  In the movie, Magua kills Munro, but Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook rescue the girls.  They escape in a canoe and survive a chase.  They hide in a cave under a waterfall, but Magua finds them.  Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook escape with Hawkeye promising Cora he will rescue her.

                        In the novel, Gamut tells the trackers that the girls are being held in separate villages.  Heyward disguises himself as a French medicine man to get Alice.  Hawkeye and Uncas go after Cora, but Uncas is captured and tortured.  And then it gets bonkers.  Hawkeye disguises himself as a bear.  In a bear costume!  To rescue Uncas, Uncas puts on the bear costume, Hawkeye dresses as Gamut, and Gamut pretends to be Uncas.  At a council meeting, Uncas convinces them that he is a Mohican which makes him related to the tribe.  Everyone is set free except Cora, who has to go with Magua.

                        In the movie, Hawkeye and the Mohicans track Cora, Alice, and Duncan to the Huron village.  Duncan sacrifices his life for Cora.  Alice is awarded to Magua.  In the novel, when Magua leaves the Delaware village with Cora, the heroes and a Delaware war party give chase resulting in a big battle with Magua’s warriors.  Magua escapes with Cora and the fight moves to a cliffside.  Cora is killed by a different Huron.  Uncas go after him, but Magua shoots him in the back.  Magua leaps across a divide and clings to a bush and Hawkeye shoots him.  The book ends with a long passage on the funerals of Uncas and Cora.  Contrast that with the movie where Uncas chases Magua to get Alice.  Unfortunately, Magua kills Uncas in a fair fight.  Alice leaps to her death.  Chingachgook avenges his son by killing Magua.

                        I have done a lot of book/movie comparisons and most of the time I find that the movie plot improves upon the book’s plot.  “The Last of the Mohicans” certainly fits my theory that the movie SHOULD be better than the book because the screenwriter has the novel to work from and he/she can improve upon it.  This is true even if the novel is good.  It is especially true if the novel is bad.  So, what if the novel is terrible?  This applies to “The Last of the Mohicans”.  Any competent screenwriter could improve its plot.  It may be a classic, but it is truly terrible.  It is too long and the second half is nuts.  Hawkeye pretends to be a bear.  ‘Nuf said.  The movie is better than the book in every way.   Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe made significant changes that greatly improved the entertainment value of the story.  They gave context to the threat to the militia families.  They gave Magua better motivation.  (In fact, in a typical modern revenge flick, Magua would be the hero.)  Magua is simply a villain in the book, he is a great villain in the movie.  The whole Ft. William Henry sequence is much improved.  Cooper has Hawkeye leaving as a courier and getting captured!  In the book, Hawkeye is pretty lame.  (And he’s named Natty Bumppo – thankfully this is never mentioned in the movie.)  The book completely goes off the rails in the two Indian villages.  The movie tightens this up to get to the big payoff – the two duels.  And then it eliminates the interminable funeral scene that drags the book to the end.

                        The main improvement is the movie really bumps up the romance element.  And the changes are significant.  In the book, Duncan chooses to woo Alice.  It is implied that his choice was due to Cora being biracial!  There is a hint of Uncas and Cora being interested in each other, and Uncas does die for her, but it is not a main plot point.  Hawkeye is not involved in any romance.  He is not the dominant character like in the movie.  Clearly he is not a ladies’ man and in a bear costume, he is something of a buffoon.  Speaking of buffoons, the movie wisely eliminates Gamut.  One thing about the movie is it lacks any humor, but so does the book.  Unintentional humor, anyway.  Mann and Crowe make the romance between Hawkeye and Cora the core of the film.  Duncan is interested in Cora and is a competitor with Hawkeye for the hand.  Duncan is shifted to villain in need of redemption.  The Uncas/Alice dynamic is given some juice.   The movie kills off Munro and Duncan, which is realistic.

                        While the movie dispenses with humor, it has everything else.  Great acting, action, music, scenery.  Heroes and villains.  It is commendably true to history, although based on fiction.  Of all the war movies based on novels, I would argue that it improves on its source more than any other.  Just be aware that if you watch the magnificent movie instead of reading the tedious novel, you will get an F on your book report.  And I doubt your English teacher will appreciate the implication that you preferred a movie to a classic.

BOOK  =  D

MOVIE  =  A+

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