THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1920)

Scene Analysis

Establishing a Role for Native Americans in The Last of the Mohicans

[1]      During the French and Indian War, the massacre of Fort William Henry occurred on August 9, 1757.  The French troops had successfully captured the fort and allowed for the peaceful evacuation of the English soldiers stationed there.  Montcalm, the leader of the French army, arranged for the English troops to leave so the French could occupy the fort.  Montcalm then made the Huron chiefs aware of the peaceful surrender that was established with the British.  Montcalm promised the chief of the Huron tribe that after the British left his people would be able to take anything that may have been left behind.  That day around noon as 450 British soldiers marched off to their camp, a number of Indians ran through the gate to gain their promised “booty.”  All that the British had left behind, however, where the sick and wounded soldiers who were unable to travel.  The Huron were not pleased with this and began killing the remaining British because their scalps were considered a “prize” of war.  The 450 British soldiers returned to help the sick and wounded, and they too became victims of the massacre.  James Fenimore Cooper uses this scene in his novel The Last of the Mohicans to bring history and fact into what seems to be a complex love story.  It is a story that attempts to unite two races of people.  The attack of Fort William Henry is also portrayed in the multiple film versions.  This siege of the fort is the sole historical event that takes place in the novel.  Some of the characters were, however, real and did in fact occupy the same posts as described in the novel.

[2]     The massacre of Fort William Henry occurs about half way through the film (43:20).  The British women, children, and soldiers have left the fort.  As they leave, the Huron watch, waiting for the moment when they can enter the fort.  As they wait, Magua, a member of the tribe, encourages them to attack the fleeing British.  The director of the 1920 version of The Last of the Mohicans, Maurice Tourner, sets the stage for the massacre, with the Huron tribe leering at the British, mainly women, as they evacuate the Fort.  They stare at the travelers as cats waiting the moment to pounce on their prey.  Tourner creates an almost leering presence to the Huron.  They stare, waiting for just the right encouragement from their leader, the evil Magua.  Research into the historical context shows there was no Magua, or any specific Indian, who instigated the attack on the British.  This part of the movie is based on the Cooper novel and its ongoing love triangle, and not the need for “booty.”  Tourner does, however, show that the massacre was in part a cause of the “fire water” actually given to the Huron.  In this scene in the film, just before one of the Indians attacks a woman and her child, he takes a large swig from a jug that the viewer can only assume contains alcohol.  In the film, as well as the novel, alcohol played a major role, as well as revenge, but in actual history it did not exactly occur that way.

[3]     At the attack in the film there are no French soldiers present -- is this for a reason or not?  To win the war, Montcalm needed to maintain good relations with his most powerful Indian allies, and this involved not angering them to turn on him and his army.  “Montcalm’s only excuse for not using his own troops to restrain the Indians was that to do so he would have lost the red men as allies.  This he would not do, and the Indians and their grisly trophies were still with him when he burned Fort William Henry and withdrew to Montreal” (Leckie 301).  Why was this left out of the 1920 film version?  Perhaps the truth lies in the director.  Maurice Tourner was born in Paris.  As a native born Frenchman, perhaps he did not wish to see his home and country portrayed in a negative light.  A simple way to avoid this would be to omit any French involvement in the actual massacre that occurred at the fort.  Rather than having to deal with the actual involvement and negativity, he encourages the heroism of the British and draws a picture of a French army who remains uninvolved.  This gives a negative depiction of the French, as they remain uninvolved when women and children are being killed.  Does this take away from the film?  I think that as far as the film goes, with its depiction of the massacre, it isn’t really necessary to show that Montcalm is the one who burns the fort to the ground.  The French do not initiate the massacre, but it is Magua’s quest for revenge.  The importance is that there actually was a massacre.  Now if Tourner had erased the massacre and dealt with Fort William Henry and made it this happy place, then there would be a problem.  Even though there was more French involvement in the massacre, their absence does not take away from the film.

[4]     This scene in this version of the film shows that Native Americans are portrayed as distinctly different than whites.  There are two types of Indians shown in the film.  The first type is the noble savage, which this specific scene does not show, but is present in the character of Uncas and Chingachgook.  These are the Mohicans, the Indians who try to help the British as well as the damsels in distress.  The second type is blatantly obvious and is the focus of this scene, and that is the “drunken, dangerous, and primitive Huron.  These creatures are presented as being distinctly different than whites, almost subhuman, costumed in war paint and caveman skins.  They are physically strong, practically indestructible, unpredictable and prone to violent behavior” (Edgerton 1).  They are easily swayed to do what is asked of them.  In this scene, give them a little alcohol, say the right words, and you have a massacre.  The Huron are portrayed as violent without a cause.  The Huron are not being attacked by the scores of women and wounded leaving the fort.  They kill for no reason other than the kill itself.

[5]     The massacre scene at Fort William Henry, in relation to the film as a whole, is a foreshadowing of what is to come at the end of the film.  The British, or the so-called “good” guys, lose, and the French and Huron are triumphant.  What does this scene tell the audience is to come?  Should we expect a happy ending like most films try to give the audience?  This one scene begins the final struggle between the two Indians, Magua and Uncas, over Cora, the beautiful daughter of a British General.  This scene represents another struggle to dominate the female and control her for all time.  That is what Magua is trying to do in this scene.  By inciting a massacre, he gives himself the opportunity to take Cora and her sister Alice without being caught.  Magua is able to get time on his side to escape with the girls.  Not only do we sympathize with the two girls, but we also feel for all the other British who are being slaughtered by the Huron.  The audience is made to feel sympathy for those who are “good,” which are the British.  This is easily seen when the Indian takes the baby from the mother.  He has no reason or motivation to harm a mother and child.  What is she going to do to him?  Yet, with a demonic look in his eye, he snatches the baby from the weeping mother’s arms and flings it into the air.  There is no reason for this.  But it makes the audience see the Huron as evil men who do whatever they want.  They have no regard for anyone but themselves.

[6]     Tourner films the massacre as it occurs from various points of view, but the point of view come from someone’s eyes.  As Alice and Cora leave Fort William Henry, the audience is able to see them from Magua’s eyes.  He sees their fears as they pass by him, the tremble in their eyes.  It is almost a telescope-type view showing the two women as his only focus.  And in return the audience is able to see how he eyes them with immoral intentions.  He stares at them, not as a killer, but as an attacker who wants something from them.  His eyes glare at them, letting them know that he will get what he wants, which is Cora as a squaw.  It is the look of "be mine or you will be no one else’s."   In many ways this scene predicts the outcome of the whole film.  Magua controls the entire film, even though things may not turn out exactly how he wants in the end: if he can’t have something, then no one can.  All three characters that attempt to involve themselves in the interracial love triangle die.  Not one is able to survive.  This shows the unfavorable attitude towards miscegenation.

[7]     The final item to comment on in this scene is the use of music.  The music remains fairly constant throughout the entire film.  It is, however, at the scene of the massacre where the music changes slightly.  The consistency of the music throughout the film reminds me of a heartbeat, and it changes accordingly.  In this scene specifically the music gets louder and faster, just as your heart would do if it were nervous or under stress.  The scene is exactly a very stressful and nerve-wracking scene.  There are swarms of nervous people as well as angry people all about.  If we as an audience think of the music in the scene as our heartbeat, then it would probably sound very similar.

[8]     Overall, this scene is one of the most action-filled in the entire movie.  Even though it is very entertaining, it also bring to light several different themes that are critical to the film itself.  It asks many questions of the audience.  It asks us to think about things like the real role of Native Americans at Fort William Henry and whether the role depicted in the film is biased by the time period?  In real life, how involved were the French -- was their role as simple as seen in the film?  We think about what role music plays, even though it may sound the same at one point as the next, but what is different about it?  Most importantly, we as an audience are able to see how history can serve for more than just entertainment but can help build characters, and how history can inspire and be the base for an entire film.

Works Cited

Edgerton, Gary.  “ ‘A Breed Apart’: Hollywood, Racial Stereotyping, and the Promise of Revisionism in The Last of the Mohicans.”  Journal of American Culture 17.2 (1994): 1-20.

Leckie, Robert.  “A Few Acres of Snow”: The Saga of the French and Indian Wars.  New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1999.
 
 

Copyright (c) 1999 by Jessica Baker Roche, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.

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