LAST OF THE MOHICANS was started by Maurice Tourneur and completed by his assistant, Clarence Brown, after Tourneur was injured on location. Ironically, the silhouetted figures shot against skylines or magnificent valleys are among the most Tourneuresque moments in the film — Brown, a major talent himself, had been working for MT long enough to be able to mimic his style skillfully.
Classic Tourneur/Rembrandt mood-lighting.
The action stuff is also impressive at times, with a knife-fight between old Chingachgook and fiendish Magua (a svelte Wallace Beery) particularly striking — the men circle each other, daggers drawn, each filmed from the other’s POV, intercut to conjure a swirly, disorienting feeling of tension and unease.
The last thing Ted Healy ever saw.
Politically, the film is certainly progressive for its time. In fact, it’s striking to compare it with the Michael Mann remake: since Mann’s era deemed it unacceptable to cast white actors as Indians, Mann simply rewrote the plot to make the white trapper Hawkeye into the romantic lead, sidelining Unca and rendering the relationship with Alice a mere side-show, so that her dramatic climax is ineffective because we’ve barely spent any time with her and we haven’t followed her love affair. In a sense, the Tourneur/Brown film is more politically progressive.
The romance between Uncas (Alan Roscoe, Theda Bara’s usual leading man) and Cora (delicate beauty Barbara Bedford) is chaste but somewhat taboo-busting (though of course having a white man play Uncas sweetens the pill for concerned racists) — politically, the novel and film both dance all over the map in the interests of storytelling and not offending anyone. The white men who give whisky to the Hurons, provoking a horrific massacre (complete with Von Stroheim-style baby-hurling) go unnamed, although presumably they’re French — so the violence of the redskins is caused by completely anonymous white folks, which allows the film to show some disturbingly nasty acts while pointing the finger of blame off into an out-of-focus offscreen limbo.
The ability to do creepiness and menace may be hereditary…
Tourneur/Brown: The Last of the Mohicans