Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is called Hawkeye for his keen aim with the pen.
"So all of my family departed, each in his turn, to the land of the spirits. I am on the hilltop. I must go down to the valley, and when Uncas follows in my footsteps, it must end the blood of the Sagamores, for my son is the last of the Mohicans."—Chingachgook, the penultimate Mohican
The Last of the Mohicans wasn't the first time Natty Bumppo appeared in a novel. James Fenimore Cooper introduced the frontier hero in The Pioneers: or, The Sources of the Susquehanna in 1823. That one's described by the James Fenimore Cooper Society as the "first American frontier and environmental novel." As the first popular author to write about the frontier, Cooper shaped the westward movement, at least in the popular imagination, through five Bumppo novels known as "The Leatherstocking Tales."
This adaptation of the classic early American novel comes from the BBC, so you'll get veddy British frontiersmen and Native Americans. It originally aired in the United States as part of the first season of Masterpiece Theater, with eight chapters running just over 40 minutes each.
Facts of the Case
Nathaniel Bumppo (Kenneth Ives, The First Churchills) and his two Native American friends Chingachgook (John Abineri, Funeral in Berlin) and Uncas (Richard Warwick, The First Churchills) are scouting for the British in the Hudson Valley during the French and Indian War. Bumppo has formed a bond of friendship with the last two Mohicans. "I have fought back to back with these Mohicans, father and son, and they didn't run," he tells the stuffy Maj. Hayward (Tim Goodwin, Jane Eyre), who isn't convinced of their trustworthiness or bravery. Chingachgook and Uncas hold Bumppo in high regard as well, calling him "Hawkeye" for his skill with a rifle.
Col. Munro (Andrew Crawford, Julius Caesar) has something else on his mind, since daughters Cora (Patricia Maynard, Night Train to Paris) and Alice (Joanna David, Bleak House) are on their way to Fort William Henry to visit him. Great timing, since the fort's under siege. They're being escorted by Hayward, who "already appreciates" Alice's charms. When Hawkeye and his two friends stumble on their party just in time to stop a Huron attack, Cora's immediately smitten. The frontiersman joins them as they make their way to the fort.
As mentioned before, it's a very British portrait of life on the American frontier. The frontiersmen are British, the Native Americans are British, the French are British, and the British are British. Richard Ivey as Hawkeye isn't a bad actor, but his line delivery evokes images of James Bond wannabe rather than rough-hewn frontiersman. The actors who play Native Americans often come across as they are: British actors going shirtless with war paint. Outdoor scenes aren't filmed in the Hudson Valley, but in Glen Affric, Invernesshire, as the show's credits note.
Still, I was impressed by the performance of Philip Madoc (Monte Carlo) as Magua. Perhaps the most complex character in the simple adventure story, he's a Huron who had been allied with the British until Col. Munro had him whipped for drinking "firewater." As he tells Cora later, he's proud of his battle scars but the whip lashes still humiliate him. "Is it justice to make evil and punish for it?" he asks about the British who brought liquor to American shores. Madoc's expressions show he's not exactly thrilled with condescending French ally Montcalm, either. Eventually his vengeful actions force a showdown with Uncas and bring war between the Hurons and the peaceful Delawares in a conclusion that echoes Shakespearean tragedy.
This version of Mohicans puts the role of Chingachgook in the strong hands of John Abineri as well, making his character's sense of loss as the penultimate Mohican a poignant reminder that Europeans' settlement took a heavy toll on the Native Americans. His friendship with Hawkeye has another dimension, since their bond is at least partly shaped by the fact that they are both out of place in the encroaching settlement of America.
These performances highlight one of the story's strong points. Although it's an adventure story, James Fenimore Cooper avoids shaping the British into perfect heroes and writes his Native American characters as complex as their British and American counterparts. It also shows the ill effects that British settlement had on the Native Americans, from the above-mentioned "firewater" to the chasing of the Delaware from their Delaware River. The 1826 novel was written years after the French and Indian War (1754-1763), but James Fenimore Cooper clearly strove to show how the war shaped the continent rather than merely telling a good yarn.
It's interesting to note that Patricia Maynard's Cora comes across here as a strong character who makes a formidable match for Hawkeye. When they first meet, he applauds her for fighting back, whacking one of the Hurons with a rifle butt. Later on, Cora proves almost as clever at strategy as Hawkeye and is willing to sacrifice herself to free her sister when captured by Magua.
The production suffers from cheapness. Many outdoor scenes are obviously filmed on sets, so Fort William Henry and the surrounding wilderness don't look that convincing. The fight scenes are ludicrous at times, although some viewers might prefer that ridiculousness to the graphic style of, say, 24.
The picture has lots of flecks and spots, with occasional grain or flaring, but still looks better than similar British productions I've seen recently. Episode Seven has one brief glitch that's very noticeable. The soundtrack's average, but has some interesting music inspired by Native American sounds. Since the IMDb trivia note on this one says "Missing, believed wiped from the archives," it's good to have this one around, even if it isn't in perfect shape.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the problems with adapting a classic novel is that the themes and story by now seem clichéd, even though it was a strikingly original work in the early 1800s.
The opening scenes, with a wooden conversation between actors Andrew Crawford and Tim Heyward in an obviously fake fort, started me off with a bad opening impression of this adaptation, but after a while the strength of Cooper's story comes through. By the time Philip Madoc and Patricia Maynard—the miniseries' two standout performers—share a moving scene as Magua tells Cora his story, the production had grown on me.
Two great performances and a strong basic story redeem a lot of faults, so I'll give this one a not guilty.
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