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Whites and Indians and White Indians: The Last of the Mohicans from James Fenimore Cooper to Daniel Day Lewis

Thomas O. Kelly II
(Siena College)

Presented at the 11th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1997

©1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta
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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 11), Papers from the 1997 Cooper Seminar (No. 11), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 64-68)

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The genesis of this paper lies in the burst of publicity which greeted the appearance of the 1992, Michael Mann version of The Last of The Mohicans, which starred Daniel Day Lewis. Much of the orchestrated publicity focused on the film's "heightened sensitivity" in regard to the American Indian, AKA the Native American. The casting of Russell Means, of the American Indian Movement, as Chingachgook reinforced that image.

The film itself concludes with Uncas dead, unable to defeat Magua in a fair fight [Cooper at least arranged his death so as to provide Magua an unfair advantage], Chingachgook mourning and, to shamelessly filch the jargon of the dime novel and cheap Western films, the two "white eyes" embracing, literally gazing into the sunset [though Chingachgook is "with" them, he is visually clearly separated] -- into which by long standing cultural convention it may be assumed they will move and the Indian will vanish. In short, other than bookending the film, by opening with an authentic sounding prayer over dead hunting prey and closing with Chingachgook's prayer for Uncas, the film's vaunted sensitivity seemed to me to be, at best, dubious, its attitudes and, particularly its filmic elements more ambivalent than was, perhaps, intended.

How then, I wondered, might it compare with previous film versions and with the novel itself -- and how might it compare or contrast with the attitudes of Americans of European descent toward the American Indian which were characteristic of earlier times.

James Fenimore Cooper is unique among American literary figures. Now largely ignored outside graduate and undergraduate courses in American literature (and faring poorly there) he remains an imposing figure. Cooper alone has created a true, American, cultural myth. Borrowing from Daniel Boone and other historical prototypes he has given us the American legend -- the man alone (or in company with only 1 or 2 companions) on the edge of the wilderness, who seeks justice for its own sake, to fulfill his "gifts." He can, if necessary, be brutal as when, after the initial recovery (Cooper, p. 214) of Alice and Cora, he thrusts his knife into the body of every Indian in sight, to be sure they are not feigning death. This might be compared with John Wayne's Ethan Edwards shooting out the eyes of a dead Indian in "The Searchers" so that he will wander blind in the afterlife. The "man alone" is also brave, skilled and loyal and the natural protector of the weak.

Hawkeye, of course, is invariably accompanied by his "faithful Indian companion," Chingachgook, and his son Uncas, in The Last of the Mohicans. It is, of course, the latter two, together with Magua the Huron, a splendid villain, who provide the means for illustrating the ambivalence of whites vis-à-vis the Indians. The native intelligence, dignity and sense of justice of the Mohicans are, as it were, unmotivated -- provided by a divine spark. They are the pristine form (and an enviable one) of Indian character. Magua, on the other hand, has been debauched by white culture. Drink has corrupted him and the lash of the British Army, applied at Colonel Munro's behest, has provided specific motivation for the malevolence he represents.

And what of that ambivalence which is, I hope to demonstrate, in the film as fully developed as it is in Cooper! It is certainly not new. Ambivalence has long characterized the attitudes of Americans of European, especially English, ancestry toward Americans of Amerindian ancestry.

The Puritans in this, as in so much else, were arguably the first English North Americans to intellectualize their attitudes. The conversion of the Indian was a concept which underlay at least some incentives to colonization. Cooperation with the Indian was a major factor in the survival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony. Conflict of a fierce and savage nature characterized the English destruction of the aboriginal inhabitants during that series of events we label the Pequot War, an event as rich in meaning for them as it was rich in metaphorical meaning for Melville in Moby Dick. King Philip's war was worse. Cooperation or conflict are, so to speak, omnipresent choices in early American history.

Succinctly put, for purposes of this paper, the New World of North America was, in one interpretation, a New Eden; a divinely provided Edenic spot upon which the Saints could create their New Zion. In such an interpretation, at least a bow in the direction of a New Adam had to be accorded the native of the region -- a foreshadowing, if I may be allowed the conceit, of Rousseau's "Noble Savage."

[65] The polarity was the darkness of the wilderness. The literal darkness of a primeval forest (akin to that so eagerly attacked by Boniface, another Englishman in a primeval forest, 900 years earlier and by his brothers, the other Christian missionaries in the German wilderness of the 8th Century). In the forests of Germany, it is said, the axe was as much a tool of the early Christian missionaries as was the Cross. In that frame of reference, a very different reading would then be assigned the Indian -- now he became a child of Satan; an impediment to the godly society as the forest was an impediment to the goodly society. (Heimert, pp. 361-382)

Nor, in 19th century American literature, was the ambivalence peculiar to Cooper. William Gilmore Simms, in The Yemassee, 1835, displays the same ambivalence but generationally rather than tribally. His contrast is between the Yemassee chieftain, Sanutee, a figure of great dignity, even of nobility, who, though in pursuit of a doomed cause, challenges the fates, and the whites. His contrasting figure is not a member of a different tribe or language group but his own son, Occonestoga, who, like Magua, has seen his nature corrupted by white influence -- once again, alcohol. I might note, parenthetically, that alcohol perhaps symbolically as well as materially, seems to be the primary carrier of white influence -- or perhaps simply the easiest to illustrate. In any event, Simms, like Cooper, displays the same dichotomous attitudes. The Indian is admirable; attuned to nature and its Creator, brave, natively wise and natively good. The Indian is bad; untrustworthy and unknowable, savage and ferocious, a creature of malevolence. I would submit, for purposes of brevity, that the ambivalence was a constant in virtually all literary work of merit, and even some of the pure Ned Buntline variety, and that such ambivalence also characterized a great many "Western" films.

My research to this point indicates no fewer than nine direct attempts to film The Last of the Mohicans or a reasonable facsimile thereof. There were two silent versions (1911 and 1920), one serial (1932), five film versions with sound (1936, 1947, 1962, 1977 and 1992), one of which (1962) was adapted from a television series, and a television version done by BBC and carried in the United States by PBS. I have reviewed the 1920, 1932, 1936, 1977 and 1992 versions. I have been unable to lay my hands on the BBC version though the effort goes on. (Hilger, pp. 18, 34, 57, 62, 75, 123 and 156) [Editor's Note (2009). The BBC Version was finally released in 2007 and can be purchased today. The 1920 silent version has been re-mastered and re-released; and there is also a new version of it, in which the original film has been provided with new inter-titles and sound-track by Mohican musician Brent Michael Davids.]

The burden of this paper, using the various forms of The Last of the Mohicans as a vehicle, is that, while attitudinal changes are clearly evident in 20th Century popular forms, ambivalence remains as clear in 1992 as it was in 1826 -- though overt racism and sexism have, to a significant degree, subsided.

The title of the paper suggests that the ambivalence and/or dichotomy of Whites and Indians (Whites vs. Indians) is compounded or perhaps defined, by the "White Indian." A White Indian, for our purposes, is a man of European racial origin who is possessed of a full range of the skills of the Indian but has never lost sight of his whiteness -- no matter how sensitively he is attuned to individual Indians or to a quasi-cosmic Indian ethos. Natty Bumppo, AKA Hawkeye, Pathfinder, Deerslayer, or even La Longue Carabine, is the prototypical White Indian. Strikingly similar in his written epiphany is The Lone Ranger and, as a sort of malevolent doppelganger, so is the knowledge of Indian lore and culture held by John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers." The White Indian then has various incarnations.

Cooper's Hawkeye is the epitome of the White Indian as noble -- partaking of the virtues of both whites and Indians -- though clearly preferring to live his life among the Indians (or at least with Chingachgook) rather than among Europeans. For Cooper, however, it is important that he is white. Over and over we are reminded by Hawkeye that he is a man "without a cross" (Cooper, p. 149) -- no fewer than twenty-seven times in 621 pages -- that is about once every 23 pages [repetition for emphasis, indeed]. Several of the references are plural and Chingachgook also stipulates "I am an unmixed man." The purity of Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas is then clearly of great significance. That characteristic remains true of the White Indian as hero in American popular culture.

It seems clear to me that Cooper here is being more than classically racist. The issue which is disturbing to him is mixed blood. Mixed blood seems to be, by definition, tainted blood. It is as disturbing to Chingachgook as it is to Hawkeye. Each race is better unmixed -- each true to its "gifts," Of course, Hawkeye retains his white "gifts" while having richly assimilated red "gifts." There is no equivalent reciprocity for Uncas or Chingachgook, either in novel or in film.

In The Last of the Mohicans, there is no doppelganger for the noble scout, the heroic "White Indian." On the other hand, in U.S. history and culture there clearly is. It would be remiss of me not to note, at least parenthetically, this additional ambivalence. The fear of the "white renegade," aiding the Indians "against his own kind" is often a sub-text of fear in popular culture (as it sometimes was in fact). In Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster for example, Daniel Webster, prepared to argue a case with the devil for the soul of Jabez Stone, merely demands a trial. "Let it be any court you choose, so it is an American judge and an American jury!...let it be the quick or the dead...." (Benet, p. 40) Of the twelve jurors, all dead and damned, Benet names seven -- and of the seven two were "White renegades," Walter Butler [66] and Simon Girty. In the film version, all twelve are named and Butler and Girty are joined by Big and Little Harp, notorious murderers, who had in their youth spent much time among the Cherokee. In all U.S. history, as told by Benet in 1937, nearly 1/3 of famous villains are evil "White Indians." Until recent times, that message was, I would aver, arguably a part of our cultural baggage.

The men "with a cross", the "half-breeds" of history and literature are, of course, "White Indians" in another sense and an awful one. A mental search of U.S. history and literature is hard pressed to find a "half-breed" with "redeeming social value." From Quanah Parker to Twain's "Injun Joe," the stock figure is either an unredeemed villain or a whiskey soaked derelict. It is, perhaps only in this sad and stark stereotype, that we are spared the ambivalence of attitude which forms the core of this essay.

How do the filmed versions of The Last of the Mohicans deal with what I claim to be this classic ambivalence and, what changes might be perceived in three quarters of a century -- from the 1920 silent to the 1992 version. Do the liberties taken with the novel make the films more, or less, "sensitive" to the American Indian?

First, it should be said that Cooper himself reflects approval of many Indian traits and virtues. He, as it were, encapsulates Indian vice by using Magua and the Hurons as a device -- much as he will use the Sioux in The Prairie -- a device also used (and also using the Pawnee for contrast with the Lakotah) in the film Dances With Wolves. He frequently alludes to their dignity and sensitivity -- as in the death of Reed that Bends and the attitude of his father (Cooper, p. 445). So too, Cora says of Uncas (p. 109) "who that looks at this creature of nature remembers the shade of his skin." In the novel Cora is attracted to Uncas, and he to her. Cooper deals with this potential problem (Cooper, p. 292) by providing Cora with a mulatto, probably quadroon or octoroon, mother -- thus providing his audience with a remote sexual "frisson" and making acceptable Uncas' attraction. The burials of Uncas and Cora in the novel then provide for union in death, a spiritual union as it were. In filmed versions this can be quite explicit. In 1920, for example, as Uncas races to rescue her the screen lights the sentence "The Cry of Heart to Heart" and after both plunge to their deaths their hands entwine. Their hands also clasp in 1936.

In the 1920 film version, with Wallace Beery an unlikely Magua, Cora's racial heritage is unexplored and, rather than dying at knife point as she does in the novel, she leaps to her death from a precipice -- a death reflected variously (as the Cora and Alice characters interchange the affection for Uncas) in the 1936 (Cora) and 1992 (Alice) versions. I assume (and label it assumption) that in 1920, the leap absolutely resonated with echoes of the choice of "Little Sister" in Birth of a Nation (1915) to leap to her death rather than face marriage with a black soldier. As in the novel, so in the 1920 and 1936 and 1992 versions, the films allow Cora/Alice to die (and spiritually unite with Uncas) and avoid dishonor in Magua's lodge, but no physical union is envisioned. Again, a peculiar ambivalence stretching for 165+ years, from 1826-1992. And that darn leap keeps recurring, in 1936 and 1992 -- and seemingly with the same motivation, or maybe just because it's dramatic.

In most film versions, except '36 and '92, Duncan Heyward is the romantic lead -- as Cooper had envisioned him. Interestingly (probably to avoid exposition), all the film versions I have seen make him English -- in the novel, he is an American-born officer (Cooper, p. 82, 292). Cooper indeed provides him with opportunities to display character as well as courage, adventures which make him an appropriate hero -- fit, as it were, "to win fair lady." Hawkeye is not, until the 1936 film when Randolph Scott played the role, a romantic lead. He is not a contemporary of Uncas, but of Chingachgook. Since by class, as well as by generation, he cannot aspire to the heroine, he is virtually sexless. Here, I think, is where we see the greatest ambivalence in the 1992 version. Daniel Day Lewis is not Hawkeye. Indeed, only once in the film does he use the name. He is Nathaniel. The recurrent use of Nathaniel proclaims his white origin. The woman to whom he aspires is white. The children of the union will be white. It is very similar to the cop-out in Dances With Wolves where the Lakotah woman to whom the Kevin Costner character aspires is, coincidentally, a white female "adopted" by the Lakotah after the wicked Pawnee have massacred her family. "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

The death of Magua has become a significant change. In the novel and in the 1920 silent film, the death of Uncas is avenged by the well placed rifle ball with which Hawkeye kills Magua. By and since 1936, Magua is killed (1936, 1977, 1992) by Chingachgook. This may well be said to speak to sensitivity -- Indians can deal with their own, they need not be avenged by whites. But, it also makes for a much more cinematic death. Still, Hawkeye could have been made to bear that burden.

Similarly the burial scene has shown greater sensitivity == or at least greater accuracy. In 1920, 1936 and 1977 Uncas was provided with a burial platform (a characteristic mode of many of the plains tribes but totally outside Eastern woodland Indian culture). The novel's burial scene, while romanticized, is much more nearly accurate and appropriate (Cooper, Chapter XXXIII). So too is that of the 1992 film.

[67] The 1992 treatment of Montcalm also suggests that the so-called "massacre" of Fort William Henry may have owed much more to French duplicity than earlier versions could indicate. Cooper himself clearly saw guilt for Montcalm -- of him he wrote "thousands...have yet to learn how much he was deficient in that moral courage, without which no man can be truly great. [He says 'Montcalm will be honored in history']...while his cruel apathy on the shores of Oswego and the Horicon will be forgotten." Michael Mann et al. suggest more than apathy; they at least allow implications of connivance. In that, they make whatever guilt there may be applicable to both races, not just one.

So too, the 1992 version opens with a title that reads "Three men, the last of a vanishing people...." clearly identifying Nathaniel with the Mohican. Though the naming continues to resonate for me, it seeks to show regular interaction, trading, visiting, sports, between whites and Indians. The English (as well as the French) are epitomized as villainous, lying, deceitful and treacherous -- a presaging of the American Revolution foreign to the novel; borrowed rather from the 1936 film.

The similarities between 1936 and 1992 versions are not at all accidental. Mann in the title sequences credits not only Cooper but the 1936 film and its writers as well.

Magua's malevolence is more fully motivated by the news that his village was burned and his children killed by the English under Col. Munro. It is hardly then to be wondered that he wishes to wipe the "seed" of Munro from the earth. Whether that exposition offsets the vision of Magua holding high the heart which he has torn from Munro's chest (a debt owed perhaps more to Lucas and Spielberg than Cooper) is a debatable question. Since film is an essentially visual medium, I rather suspect the savagery of the scene outweighs the audible exposition -- and thus, the ambivalence is sustained -- Magua may have reasons to be angry but his anger leads to acts which, while visually stirring and filmic, reinforce notions of the Indian as barbarian.

To continue the list, when Nathaniel (in the only scene in which he calls himself Hawkeye) seeks to persuade the Huron village to let Cora and Alice go, he tells them they cannot trust Magua and he accuses Magua of whiteness, the corrupting effects of which will lead him to betrayal of all things Indian. This from a man who might be said to be (by extension) an Ivy League grad. He and Uncas, we are told, by Mann, had both been sent to the Rev. Wheelock's Indian school (forerunner of Dartmouth College) at the age of ten by Chingachgook. What the more militant traditionalist tribal leaders would make of this is an interesting question.

To reprise briefly, the attraction between Cora/Alice and Uncas and its non consummation is an ambivalence begun by Cooper and continuing in all filmed versions-with the addition of the precipice.

The arrival of Hawkeye/Nathaniel as a romantic lead (1936, 1992) creates the need for an appropriate partner and, in the end, leaves Chingachgook without his white companion.

The death of Uncas and the subsequent death of Magua in film have, I believe, created another ambivalence. The "good" Indian is weak, the corrupted Indian is strong.

The treatment of Montcalm tends to ameliorate the notion of exclusive Indian guilt for the massacre -- but is only a return to Cooper. The death of Colonel Munro and the tearing out of his heart would seem to do much to restore the notion of Indian barbarism.

The early, peaceful interaction between settlers and Indians is well done in 1992 -- but not sufficient to offset the notion of the Indian as the enemy -- just in the sheer volume of scenes, and the placement of the Fort William Henry massacre.

Hawkeye's becoming Nathaniel is a blow against evenhandedness favoring, as it were, his white side against his Indian side -- perhaps the modern equivalent of Cooper's stipulation about a man "without a cross."

I would submit that, with the passage of years, The Last of the Mohicans, as a changing cultural artifact, has indeed become more sensitive. It is, indeed, less racist and less sexist, though I leave the latter for another day. I would, however, maintain strongly that it was never purely racist -- that it was always much more ambivalent about White/Indian relationships, even as a novel. I would further maintain that that ambivalence was a reasonable reflection of genuine social and cultural attitudes prevalent among Americans and that, witness the 1992 version, such an ambivalence remains present into our own day.


Editor's Note: To this list might be added a new book dealing with this theme: Martin Barker and Roger Sabin, The Lasting of the Mohicans: History of an American Myth (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996)


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