'A Breed Apart': Hollywood, Racial Stereotyping, and the Promise of Revisionism in the Last of the Mohicans

Article excerpt

'The Last of the Mohicans' [1936] is probably the first film I saw as a child. It was a black-and-white 16 millimeter print, and I must have been three or four--it's the first sense memory I have of a motion picture.

--Michael Mann, producer-writer-director, 1992 adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans ("The Last of the Mohicans: Press Kit" 2)

Most Americans are first introduced to The Last of the Mohicans (1826) as schoolchildren, although James Fenimore Cooper's most famous adventure tale has been a popular source of material for film producers since the beginnings of Hollywood.(1) D.W. Griffith directed the first of many adaptations with his two-reeler, Leatherstocking, in 1909 for Biograph. Republic's In the Days of the Six Nations, Powers's Last of the Mohicans, and Thanhouser's The Last of the Mohicans, all followed Griffith's precedent in 1911 by devoting 15 to 20 minutes to a few episodes from the original novel and a portrayal of Native Americans which fluctuates between extremes of nobility and barbarism, mostly stressing the latter.

The first feature-length silent adaptation, The Last of the Mohicans, directed by Maurice Tourneur in 1920 for Associated Producers, contains the full-gamut of pernicious features now ascribed to the Hollywood Indian which, by 1920, was an image well established on movie screens throughout the world. In this version, Uncas (Albert Roscoe) functions primarily as the one "good" indian, since Chingachgook (Theodore Lerch) and even Hawkeye (Harry Lorraine) are restricted to minor appearances and relatively little screen time. The most compelling character by far is Magua (Wallace Berry) who leads scores of drunken, dangerous and primitive Hurons. 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, but also childlike, unpredictable and prone to violent behavior. Magua, for example, stabs Cora repeatedly during the final rebuke at the cliff, after leering at her in uninhibited ways for much of the picture. The savage Magua also kills Uncas before Hawkeye puts a final end to this "forbidden love" triangle and the film's lingering threat of miscegenation by shooting him from afar.

Several useful studies (Bataille and Silet; Friar and Friar; Marsden and Nachbar; O'Connor) already exist that lay the necessary groundwork for understanding the parameters of the Amerindian stereotype on film. These analyses focus on "good" and "bad" character types and traits; and furnish us with a composite which is deeply conflicted and contradictory, as is common of most racial, ethnic and gender stereotyping. Marsden and Nachbar, most inclusively, describe the cultural context of captivity narratives, dime novels, stage melodramas and Wild West shows which all contributed to Hollywood's rendition of the Native American. They also provide a three-part model of Amerindian characterizations on film where men compose the first two stereotypes as either "noble anachronisms" or "savage reactionaries"; and women are presented as "indian princesses" in the third, if indeed they are given any kind of serious attention on-screen at all, which does not happen often.

In the first category, Chingachgook and Uncas are, of course, prototypical "noble anachronisms," who embody Rousseau's notion of "natural man and his inherent goodness," but are ultimately doomed by the onslaught of Euro-American culture. Magua and his warrior companions are ideal examples of "savage reactionaries" who confront white manifest destiny with violent defiance, but are also annihilated within these films for the overall good of advancing civilization. Lastly, the "indian princess" stereotype is rooted in the legend of Pocahontas, and is typically expressed through characters who are maidenly, demure and deeply committed to some white man (in Pocahontas's case, Captain John Smith). Amerindian women, however, are virtually non-existent in all versions of The Last of the Mohicans, reinforcing the patriarchal and colonial dictates that still shape and animate this story. …