The Last of the Mohicans (1920)

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  • directed by Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown
  • starring Wallace Beery, Barbara Bedford, Lillian Hall, Alan Roscoe, James Gordon, Theodore Lurch
  • During the 18th century wars between the French and English, Huron Indian Magua sides with the French, while Mohicans Uncas and Chingachgook remain loyal to the Brits.

At some point during the production of The Last of the Mohicans director Maurice Tourneur was injured in a fall and his assistant, Clarence Brown, had to step in and finish the project. Google isn’t cooperating with my attempts at getting the details of the incident and finding out at what point in the filming that it occurred. Having seen some of each director’s work, I have some guesses as to what portions of the film should be attributed to which man but really it’s all speculation and I’m sure that Tourneur being the mentor of the relationship, coupled with Brown having never been in full control of a film before, amounted to the former’s sensibilities and choices seeping in even when he was absent.

Many of the scenes in the first half of the film had the familiar landscape-driven and highly composed pictorialist bent of Tourneur. Sequences like the introduction at the British camp, the cave scene, Munro’s candlelit strategy session, and the Delaware council all began with near-still establishing shots that wouldn’t look out of place on a museum or private manor wall. Frequently these establishing shots featured characters right up against the camera with the rest fanned out symmetrically in the middle ground in full pose and then some even further back. Soft lighting and great costumes enhanced the dignified and aristocratic atmosphere inside running in contrast frequently to glimpses of the dangerous world outside whether with a visible breeze or a view through a window or door. Once a calming visual like that had been properly set, Tourneur would then dig in, mainly employing close-up shots and editing to do the work of a scene in lieu of having the characters actually moving around the space.

If a lot of the interiors and the great sense of tethering the upstate New York landscape to all of the action were traits that screamed Tourneur then I must also give credit (again, speculation) to Clarence Brown for the brutal and chaotic Fort William Henry massacre scene. Nineteen years later Brown would win the first-ever Special Effects Oscar for The Rains Came, a film that featured an amazing monsoon/earthquake/flood scene with techniques and a scale that was up until that point not seen. Likewise, with the massacre in this film there was no holding back in terms of how big, explosive, and violent it would be. This was also when the film’s depiction of Native Americans fell in line with how most films in these decades treated them—face-painted, animalistic, blood-hungry, and rabid. Horses, children, and babies were killed and paraded around, explosions lit up the background; the ground was filled with bodies. By the way, the guy who stole a baby from its mother’s arms and threw it into the air was none other than a young Boris Karloff.

James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans has been adapted for film and television a few times although its literary legacy is one that has never been too solid. Mark Twain mocked its style and wordiness, Michael Mann said that he changed certain things in his film because the novel was, “not a very good book,” and even its creator himself after re-reading it years later noticed problems with the plot and characters. The different film versions over the years either take liberty with characters and plot, omit large sections that Cooper wrote on the Indians outside of their involvement in the French-English conflict, or heighten a romantic angle between characters that wasn’t present in the book. I think perhaps the biggest stamp that Tourneur and Co. put into their film was the strong reliance on landscapes, composition, and suggestive visuals, which allowed them to place much less emphasis on the ins and outs of the story.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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