Written by James Fenimore Cooper and published in 1826 the book is an impressive evocation of a now vanished landscape. It is the stuff childhood imaginations are full of, Indians, soldiers and war, adventure, death and glory, and only the smallest smattering of romance.
The story centres on Hawkeye (Nathaniel Bumppo), the orphaned child of early American settlers who has been brought up by one of the last warriors of the Mohican tribe of Indians. It is set in 1757 during Anglo-French Wars for the possession of sections of the American continent and describes the efforts of Hawkeye and his Indian family to help an English military family survive in the wilderness. The involvement begins when Hawkeye and his Indian family: Chingachook his 'father' and Uncas, Chingachook's only son, come across a group of English travellers: Cora and Alice Munro, Major Duncan Heywood and David Gamut, who are trying to reach Fort William Henry, where Cora and Alice's father General Munro is stationed. Hawkeye warns Heywood of the potential treachery of the group's guide Magua, an Indian of an enemy tribe. Realising he is suspected Magua flees, and from then on the group are never safe from his attacks. The Mohicans undertake to guide the English, but they never seem to achieve their aims. The party travels between old Indian burial grounds and waterfall caves as they try to stay alive, the English members are captured by Magua and freed by Hawkeye at regular intervals and at the end all is resolved neatly, if not totally happily. Along the way the characters are developed a little for the reader. A love affair is made plain between Alice and Heywood, and hinted at between Uncas and Cora, while Hawkeye appears reserved and emotionally detached from the events he is involved in, but the main point of the plot is to serve up lashings of honour and glory in the middle of war.
Cooper seems more concerned with the action of the story, and the fate of the Indian race than the effect of the events on his main characters. We learn little more about any of the characters than that which is stated as we are introduced to them. The lines between the two sides of the war are very firmly drawn, both between English and French and Mohican and Huron. Hawkeye, in particular, displays few foibles and Chingachook and Uncas are a paradigm of Indian family relationships. The Munro sisters are devoted to each other and their father, willing to persevere in the wilderness despite their weaknesses and, of course, returning the affection of the men who love them, while the English soldiers are model officers and gentleman. Even the ineffectual Gamut is well meaning and honourable. On the other hand the Huron Indians, particularly Magua are portrayed as a violent war-mongering people, with little respect for the history and traditions of the Indians. The reasons for Magua's desire to destroy the Munro family is never made particularly clear, mention being made of his being driven from his tribe and losing his wife, and plenty of 'firewater' (a nice temperance euphemism for alcohol) but not formed into a coherent reason. In the end, of course, goodness wins through, either dying honourably or living happily ever after, both for the travellers, and the English army, while Magua is destroyed and, as history shows, the French were driven from the American Continent.
The events of the story, particularly in relation to Chingachook and Uncas and the recounting of Indian traditions and lifestyles are interesting. However, the characters are too clear-cut to be absorbing or for the reader to become attached to them and Gamut, in particular, seems to serve no purpose besides highlighting the perfections of Hawkeye. The best section of the novel is the resolution at the end when the remaining characters are explored a little, but overall 'The Last of the Mohicans' is, primarily, a Native American Boys Own story.
There have been two major film versions of 'The Last of the Mohicans'1. The first was made in 1936 by George B. Seitz starring Randolph Scott and is critically regarded as inferior to the 1992 version. This was filmed by Michael Mann2 and stars Daniel Day Lewis as Hawkeye. Mann himself co-wrote the script for the movie and it is, in many ways, in complete contrast to the novel. It should perhaps have been titled 'The Last of the Mohicans: All the same characters but with completely different characterisations and plot'.
The main characters remain as in the book, as do the intentions of the two Indian sides. However events are much altered and re-ordered and characters developed. This is greatly to the benefit of the movie, as it enables the audience to become more involved. One of the most obvious alterations is that everyone loves different people in the movie than in the book. Heyward and Hawkeye become rivals for Cora (Madeline Stowe), who returns Hawkeye's love, while an interest is shown to develop between Uncas and Alice. The other major change is the complete absence of Gamut, and the alterations in the characters of Heywood and General Munro. Gamut is not missed, the plot alterations remove all requirement for his few actions, and inclusion of a spiritual psalmist would only slow down the pace of the movie, which races along as fast as the Mohicans move through the forest. The changes to Heywood and Munro are more important, and have a major impact upon the plot. Both become typical of the recent portrayal of the British Army in early America: arrogant, insensitive and with a lack of understanding of the Native Americans and Settlers, and in a politically correct manner show how right it was that the British should be forced out of America. However neither they, nor Magua (Wes Studi) are cardboard villains. The early resentment of Heywood and Munro to the Americans - particularly Hawkeye - allows Cora's struggle to follow her heart, but, in the end, both achieve a form of redemption stemming from their love for the two girls. Even Magua, as much the villain of the movie as he is of the book, is given a complexity, having been ill-used both by his own tribe and by the British at the hands of Munro. The spirit of the book remains on-screen however. The loss of Indian America is beautifully portrayed and moving as the love story, and the themes of honour and duty remain. In addition Mann manages to instil a passion that isn't present in the book to hold the audiences' attention, and brings to life the old American frontier.
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1 There have also been several TV series.
2 Heat, The Insider.