The Sunday Intertitle: Indian Summer

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…

Mann: The Last of the Mohicans: Director’s Definitive Cut [Blu-ray]

Tourneur/Brown: The Last of the Mohicans

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14 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Indian Summer”

  1. Great points about Tourneur and the fidelity to the source. I’m a huge Clarence Brown devotee, and have had a copy of this film for a few years but still haven’t watched it. It’s definitely in my lineup now.

  2. I’ve only seen a few Browns, but they were all lovely. I’m interested now in tracking the Tourneur influence into his early work — but he’s definitely a stylist in his own right.

  3. Mann’s rendition is still my favorite of all his films. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a lead without overwhelming everything. Plus there’s Patrice Chereau.

  4. The cast is all excellent. Mann tends to make creative decisions that strike me as wildly perverse and counter-intuitive in all his films, and in that one it’s his filming of action (close and incoherent) and landscape (likewise). Maybe the latter choice was so that the cliff-tops at the end would be all the more striking, but it left me frustrated all through the movie.

  5. Christopher Says:

    The nearly all music climax of the later film is one of my fave movie bits of more recent years.

  6. Jenny Eardley Says:

    The second shot reminds me of this Wright of Derby: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_the_Air_Pump

  7. Chris, yes, it’s good, would have been even better though if THE RIGHT CHARACTER HAD JUMPED.

    Jenny, I nearly said the same thing myself. It’s an image — the figures clustered around the light source — that recurs in Tourneur’s work, from the earlier Victory to the later Justin de Marseille.

  8. Jenny Eardley Says:

    That’s appalling, I’m so sorry David E. He certainly looked like he still had a spark in the Carlesi photo, if only he could have been safe.

  9. Warning: explicit imagery! But a beautiful conclusion. If I believed in prayer, I’d be praying for Poppo, but all I can do is hope.

  10. That’s all we can do, really.

  11. I highly recommend Clarence Brown’s FLESH AND THE DEVIL, which is utterly gorgeous and a hysterical delight.THE EAGLE is a fun romp with Valentino with one table-traveling shot at a feast that presages the one in Sternberg’s SCARLET EMPRESS.

    The climax of Tourneur’s MOHICANS still packs quite a wallop. Brown said that Tourneur viewed the rushes every day. “He could be very blunt. The first raspberry I ever heard came from Maurice Tourneur — and when I heard it, I knew it meant a retake.” (Quoted in The Parade’s Gone By.)

  12. Yes, I’ve read in my Pathe-Natan researches that Tourneur rather terrorized his younger actors.

    I have both those Tourneurs, have been meaning to look at them!

  13. By the way, William Cameron Menzies did the settings for THE EAGLE. He also gets that credit for Brown’s KIKI, although not on IMDb. It’s in the credits for the film itself on the recent Kino disk, however.

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