Thursday, July 23, 2015

Book v. Movie Review: "The Last of the Mohicans"

The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826 and set in 1757, is the most famous and critically acclaimed novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper is no longer in vogue, but in his own time, he was widely considered a great American novelist and his work was praised by writers such as Victor Hugo and D. H. Lawrence. Cooper's status as the first major American novelist is somewhat complicated by the fact that his most famous books, the Leatherstocking novels, including The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, have many Native American characters, and, while his portrayals are arguably less racist than those of his contemporaries, they are still wildly dated and deeply uncomfortable for contemporary readers. The 1992 film adaptation directed by Michael Mann and starring Daniel Day-Lewis met with critical adulation upon its release. The three main Native American roles were played by actors of at least partial Native American descent, Russell Means (also an activist), Eric Schweig, and Wes Studi. The film panders to more superficially enlightened ideas about race, but despite significant alterations to the plot and characters fails in its pursuit of nuance.

To start with the novel: The story, which takes place in the thick of the French and Indian War, concerns the white scout Hawkeye and his Mohican companions, Chingachgook and Uncas, father and son and the last of their nation, who become the de facto protectors and guides of Cora and Alice, the beautiful daughters of Colonel Munro, under siege at Fort William Henry. A young officer, Duncan Heyward, and a naive, deeply religious, and rather ridiculous music teacher, David, are both white men accompanying the women on the perilous journey to their father. A treacherous enemy and leader of the Hurons, Magua, leads them astray, seeking revenge against Munro and lusting after Cora. The plot weaves together historical fact with fiction and superstition; Munro is based upon Colonel George Monro, tasked with the command of Fort William Henry, and the French commander, Montcalm, is also a historical personage, but the story is almost entirely a product of Cooper's imagination.

Certain aspects of the novel are stunningly ahead of their time. For example, Hawkeye stubbornly insists that the Christian heaven and the Indians' afterlife are one and the same, while the Christian God and the Great Spirit are the same deity. He clings to this belief, asserting that he can expect to meet Chingachgook and Uncas, the two human beings for whom he cares most in the world, even after their deaths. The other white characters are utterly scandalized by this, to them, blasphemous doctrine. Hawkeye is portrayed as a great hero, crafty, shrewd, and cunning - one of the earliest examples of the intrepid American frontiersman, a cruder John Smith - and thus the sheer transgressiveness of religious belief that equates with Christianity with Native American beliefs is striking and presented in a surprisingly positive light, particularly given that, although David's sincere and fervent religiosity receives a good deal of praise, his stringent Protestant views are implicitly criticized.

Cora is a remarkable female character for her time, extraordinarily courageous, and earning the respect and admiration of the men around her. Hawkeye tells her, "I would I had a thousand men, of brawny limbs and quick eyes, that feared death as little as you! I'd send them jabbering Frenchers back into their den again..." Unlike her wilting flower of a sister, Cora never cries, she is able to negotiate with men, and more than once she acts as the literal guardian of her incapable sister. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Cora's character is that she is not exactly white. Her Scottish father describes her mother, born in the West Indies, as "descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people." That is, Cora has some black ancestry. Surprisingly, Munro comes close to expressing a sort of defensive pride in this fact and is deeply offended by the idea that a white man would find Cora unworthy of marriage. It is also Munro who dares to hope "that the time shall not be distant when we may assemble around [God's] throne without distinction of sex, or rank, or color." Holy Moses, that's some radical thinking right there.

I don't think that's Cooper's viewpoint however, as Hawkeye seems to be the favored voice for views on race, religion, and cross-cultural intercourse. The progressive views of Hawkeye, if such they can be termed, stem from his insistence on the different natures inherent to the two races. He is sympathetic to both whites and Indians, contemptuous of some qualities and praising others, but his ironclad belief in the insurmountable differences between the two cultures is uncomfortable in this day and age. For example, on scalping: "Twould have been a cruel and an unhuman act for a white-skin; but 'tis the gift and natur' of an Indian, and I suppose it should not be denied." There's an aspect of this that makes sense - cultural values vary and acts ought to be interpreted within their proper context - but, and it's a very big but, white culture is inevitably described as more intelligent, more moral, more rational, and more complex. Therein lies the problem. Hawkeye's views are more egalitarian, but hierarchies in which white men and white culture reign supreme are not at all rejected.

The Native American characters are often described as savages and, frankly, I really, really never want to encounter the word "redskin" again, having had significantly more than my fill. The Hurons, allied to the French, come out the worst, but the Delawares and Mohicans come in for their fair share of racist language. The bloodthirstiness of the hostile tribes is emphasized above other qualities, and not just by the expected descriptions of scalping. Magua's men are described as barbarians who devour raw meat (there are some particular disgusting moments in a scene in which hungry Huron warriors wolf down a deer without cooking it), while in the most brutal scene, the massacre at Fort William Henry, the Indians "even kneeled to the earth, and drank freely, exultingly, hellishly, of the crimson tide" - they are literally bloodthirsty. The first act of brutality committed by an Indian in the massacre is still shocking today: "he dashed the head of the infant against a rock, and cast its quivering remains to [the mother's] very feet." It's worth noting that Cooper almost certainly knew his Bible and he is directly referencing Psalm 137, one of the most gruesome passages in the scriptures.

Historically speaking, these atrocities are grossly inaccurate. The massacre at the Fort did indeed take place, but the attacks were principally in pursuit of plunder and only a fraction of the number described by Cooper died, most of them the wounded British soldiers left behind. The bloodbath and the singularly brutal attack on the infant and mother are the author's inventions.

Even Uncas, of all the Native American characters the noblest, most capable, and most sympathetic from the beginning, is transformed for the better by his association with whites: his "eyes [...] had already lost their fierceness, and were beaming with a sympathy that elevated him far above the intelligence, and advanced him probably centuries before the practices of his nation." Uncas is the true hero of the story, and it's unbelievably frustrating that such a deeply honorable and heroic character should have nearly every laudatory description qualified with aspersions on his moral character, based purely on the color of his skin, as well as insistence that he's "simple." I find that far harder to accept than the racist descriptions of Magua, who functions as an unmitigated villain. If you haven't read the book, the following paragraph deals with the ending.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

The actual outcome for Uncas and Cora is a subject of particular interest. From early on in the novel, it is evident that Uncas has fallen in love with Cora and though Cora's manner is far more circumspect, her feelings do seem unusually well-disposed towards him. Here's the spoiler: in the final battle between the Delaware led by Uncas and the Hurons led by Magua, both Cora and Uncas are slain. There's a reason for this. Cooper cannot permit even his great warrior to survive because he loves a white woman and the union between a Native American man and an unspoiled white woman (realistically speaking, it seems highly unlikely that Magua has actually restrained himself from raping her, but she is referred to as a maiden to the end) could not have been more taboo. The Delawares explicitly lament Uncas and Cora as a couple, fated to enter paradise together as though they were formally bonded. Hawkeye, the only white character who can understand the words of the lament, cynically doubts this, and the narrator expresses relief that Heyward and Munro are unable to understand words that would, undoubtedly, cause them shamed anguish and murderous rage. From my own twenty-first century perspective, I can understand the historical reasons why Cooper couldn't permit a happy marriage between Uncas and Cora writing in 1826, but it still leaves me quite disappointed. Had that marriage been possible, this deeply problematic book, in some ways progressive for its time, but undeniably racist, might have been great.

END OF SPOILERS.

In the film, a number of significant alterations are made. David Gamut is excised entirely, an unsurprising decision given how silly he is. More importantly, a notable subplot, pandering to contemporary American politics, is inserted; it is overwhelmingly sympathetic towards the white colonists, who rebel against being pressed into the English army because they want to freely protect their families and homesteads. Their are no white homesteaders in the novel and the inclusion of this wholly invented storyline is a blatant attempt to shoehorn in pro-American independence rhetoric. The colonists are portrayed as pure innocents, friendly to Native Americans and devoted family men. This takes up time that would have been better spent on the protagonists, but it's also an absurdly utopian view of the colonization of the Americas.

The biggest alteration is the character of Hawkeye. In the novel, Hawkeye is a confirmed middle-aged bachelor whose principal aim is to roam the woods freely without settled ties. He does not risk his life for high principles. In the film, he is transformed into a young, handsome warrior, a leader of the white colonists and prepared for self-sacrifice should his loyalty be called upon. He becomes the romantic lead and the lover of Cora.

While in the novel, by far the most heroic and noble character is Uncas, that is, the last of the Mohicans, in the film Hawkeye is far and away the greatest hero. This is a major problem and at the root of why I find the film less progressive in its treatment of race than the original novel. From a trio of intrepid warriors, two Native American and one white, the film produces a white hero and his subordinate mates. Uncas and Chingachgook are reduced to Hawkeye's silent allies, hardly ever speaking and always deferring to his leadership - this is not so in the novel, in which Chingachgook as the eldest of the three is granted the most respect. SPOILER ALERT: In the film, Uncas never assumes his place as a great chief, victorious in war and valiant in battle. He dies at Magua's hand, and Magua dies at Chingachgook's hand, just as in the book, but in the film, these acts are in service to Hawkeye. There are the slightest, most circumspect hints at a romantic feeling between Uncas and Alice, but they are so extremely slight that the most radical part of the book - a possible interracial love affair - almost entirely disappears. I was really, really hoping that the filmmakers would have the guts to let Uncas and Cora have a full-blown Hollywood love scene, but, alas, Cora, no longer of mixed race heritage, is reserved for a white man. END SPOILERS.

The film is clearly pandering to white audiences who want to feel comfortable looking back upon American history. Racist terms are not used (I don't mind that), but a sort of polite racism determines the essential philosophy behind the film. White settlers are praised for their principles, pursuit of free enterprise, and devotion to family. They are portrayed as noble victims of Indian savagery and British tyranny. The white colonists are depicted as near-saints and anyone with even a marginally unbiased view of history should know that's wildly inaccurate historically and conveniently ignoring the land-snatching, enslavement of Native Americans and blacks, tit-for-tat revenge killing, and hosts of other nasty facts of colonial life. Far worse, "good" Native American characters embrace a fatalistic view in which their cultures will die because the white men "belong" on the frontiers and whites and Indians cannot coexist. Magua, the villain, in a sharp divergence from the book, aspires to copy the trading habits of the whites and become rich. In other words, "good" Native Americans are content to simply fade away, while the "bad" want to toss off their heritage and become white men - an attitude that Hawkeye describes as "twisted." Sorry folks, but this is no improvement on Cooper's out-and-proud racist attitudes. The film's ultimate stance on race protects at all costs white cultural centrality, pro-colonialist politics, and the marginalization of Native American cultures.

In the end, the novel is imperfectly constructed, though it moves at such a fast pace that one hardly notices, and the dialogue contains large quantities of eloquently expressed exposition. I would consider the book racist as a whole, though there are glimpses of more nuanced, humanist thinking, but at bottom The Last of the Mohicans has no unifying philosophy. It's an adventure novel intended to entertain, a fantasy with only tenuous ties to historical reality, and in that narrow sense it's a success. The film is at first glance less racist, but its racism is only wrapped up in socially acceptable trappings that contemporary viewers can easily find inoffensive. It is, like its source material, entertaining, its action scenes in particular suspenseful and well-choreographed. Ultimately, both are imperfect and frustratingly fanciful interpretations of early American history, deeply shaped by the prejudices, whether baldly stated or tacitly implied, of their respective eras.

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