Classic Film Review: The First “Last of the Mohicans” (1920)

All the Twitter talk about Michael Mann’s “Heat” prequel novel and when it might be turned into a film has had me quipping “I’m holding out for his ‘FIRST of the Mohicans'” more times than the joke can stand.

I mean, I am a big fan of “Heat.” But I love Mann’s “Mohicans.” It’s his best film, the definitive version of the novel on the big screen, and as epic today as it was when he finished recreating 1750s New York in the forested mountains of North Carolina in the early ’90s.

Stumbling across the first screen version of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Last of the Mohicans,” and recalling that it was co-directed by Clarence Brown and his silent cinema mentor, Maurice Tourneur, was another attraction. I researched and wrote about Brown when I worked at a newspaper in Knoxville, Tennessee, home of Brown’s alma mater, the University of Tennessee.

The theater at UT is named for Brown, one of the school’s more esteemed alumni. He was Garbo’s favorite director and the filmmaker who gave us her “Flesh and the Devil,” “Anna Karenina” and “Anna Christie,” as well as “The Yearling,” “National Velvet” and “Intruder in the Dust.” His papers are archived there, and oral history interviews with this major figure in the early cinema are as fascinating to listen to as seeing his copies of his scripts, one with the letters “GG” and a number scribbled after it.

He’d scribbled Greta Garbo’s phone number on the margins of his working copy of “A Woman of Affairs (1928).”

I tend to shy away from silent films this old. They’re primitive, too close to the nickelodeon era in story and pictorial sophistication. Movies from 1925-1929 are far more visually interesting because the language of the moving image had been mastered and the great filmmakers of the day relied less on dialogue and more on the acting, images and editing to tell their stories.

But earlier films are fun for any film buff to watch simply because we see cinema language and “tricks” being invented.

Unlike the best of the four films and two TV series based on Cooper’s book, this “Mohicans” centers on the Huron villain, Magua, something as obvious as the fact that they cast the biggest star in that role. Wallace Beery was a decade away from gaining screen immortality thanks to the boxing weeper “The Champ,” and he’s makes an imposing if racially-incorrect Magua, here.

It’s not that the story is told from his (somewhat understandably) treacherous point of view. But he dominates the film, drives the action and plays to the prejudices of the day — the Native warrior hellbent on avenging himself on the English, and taking an English maiden for his “squaw.”

Natty Bumppo, aka “Hawkeye,” the colonial scout at the center of the novel (renamed Nathaniel Poe for the Daniel Day-Lewis/Michael Mann film) is very much in the background here and played by Harry Lorraine. Hawkeye even takes a back seat to his friends, the two title characters as well, Chingachgook (Theodore Lorch) and his son, Uncas (Alan Roscoe).

It’s not a love story, which is why Mann’s masterpiece relied on invention and the script of the ’36 version of “Mohicans.” But anybody familiar with the 1992 film (all the films are simplified versions of the book) will recognize the story beats, the French and Indian War combat and the kidnappings. Two daughters (Barbara Bedford, Lillian Hall) of an English officer (James Gordon) are escorted INTO the middle of a combat zone to be with their father, and are instead ambushed, kidnapped, rescued left behind when the men run out of ammo only to be pursued to a cliffside final confrontation.

This was Brown’s second outing as a credited director, and we catch the occasional striking image and glimpses of compositions that would turn up in later films. Mostly, though, the process shots — masking the camera to create the illusion of looking out from inside a cave, etc — and everything else we see here were boilerplate tricks of the trade as it was practiced then.

The inter-titles carry an awful lot of the storytelling here, and they’re assubtle as they generally were at the time.

 “Even in a wilderness, gently bred women somehow maintain the grace and dignity of life.”

The dialogue snippets are just as arch.

“The Hurons are on the war path. They have drunk the firewater of the French, and have listened to lying tongues.”

 “You! – the daughter of Colonel Munro! – admiring a filthy savage!”

The Hurons are depicted as wild-eyed-with-drink beasts and the Brits as too prissy to have an answer to fighting them. But the women have agency and a little pluck, Magua possesses a sort of brute nobility and Chingachgook and his son are the iconic doomed heroes, the noblest of all.

The production design is a joke, with the slapped-up wooden frontier forts of the day rendered as carved-stone edifices. The flat, washed-out light of Southern California seems as wrong as the barren mountains and dusty/rocky peaks where some of the action is set. Only the forested scenes shot in and around Big Bear Lake feel right, and the soundstage “cave” and single timber blockhouse and fort interiors aren’t bad.

The acting is better than average, heralding a new, subtler era and separating it from the broad pantomime of the cinema’s first decades.

Boris Karloff is in the background of some scenes, uncredited and a decade away from stardom.

Even though this landmark film has been added to The National Film Registry, it’s hard to find a print where the color scale matches from sequence to sequence. Look at the photos posted above to see what I mean. Different prints in different states of aging were pieced together in the restoration of the film.

The score on the version I watched all the way through — I’ve stopped by it, channel surfing, on TCM before but never stayed with it — is decorated, inappropriately, with Mendolssohn’s “Italian Symphony.” The definitive restoration is rarely streamed or broadcast.

But this “First of the Mohicans” is still worth watching just to see where cinema once was and where it would eventually go, into old growth forests, breathlessly sprinting along with Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis in a story of action, adventure and life-and-death romance symbolically capturing America as its founding myth was being written.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Wallace Beery, Barbara Bedford, Lillian Hall, Alan Roscoe, James Gordon, Henry Woodward, Theodore Lorch and Harry Lorraine.

Credits: Directed by Clarence Brown and Maurice Tourneur. Scripted by Robert Dillon, based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper. An Associated Producers release now on Tubi, Amazon, other streamers.

Running time: 1:13

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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