The tragedy of miscegenation is twofold: First, there is the conflict between a loving couple from different races and the racist society that disapproves of their union. Of course, this is a particular type of situation in which society disapproves of love even where race may not be involved, the classic story of which is Romeo and Juliet, in which the couple is of the same race but of two feuding families. Second, there is the hapless fate of their offspring, for in a society that abhors miscegenation, the children of such unions will likely be despised. In particular, they may have a harder time finding love than their parents did; for their parents fell in love despite the opportunities to marry within their own race, whereas their children will find their chances for marrying greatly circumscribed regardless of which race they choose to affiliate with.
This twofold tragedy is a natural subject for novels, plays, and movies. Of movies in particular, West Side Story (1961) is a good instance of the first type of tragedy arising from miscegenation. It not only updated the Romeo and Juliet story, but also racialized it by having the boy be Caucasian and the girl be Latina. Regarding the second type of tragedy of mixed-race love, Imitation of Life (1959) is probably the best representative.
Most of us enjoy these stories from an egalitarian vantage point. We disapprove of the racial animus that forbids miscegenation while sympathizing with the lovers or their children that suffer undeservedly from societal condemnation. I sometimes wonder, however, if racists enjoy these stories too, though for quite different reasons, seeing them as tales of sin and punishment. So, in West Side Story, someone who strongly disapproves of the intermarriage between whites and Puerto Ricans might understand Tony’s death as condign punishment for violating that taboo. And people who abhor mixed-race offspring might watch Imitation of Life and say to themselves, “That’s what Sarah Jane gets for trying to pass for white.” Had there been Capulets and Montagues in the audience, they might have favorably regarded the ending of Romeo and Juliet as teaching what can happen when you disobey your family in matters of love.
The Last of the Mohicans involves both types of tragedies arising from miscegenation, although you would never know it just from watching the movies. When a movie varies significantly from the novel on which it is based, one sometimes wonders why the producers of the movie did not simply make up a whole new story and film it under another name. The main reason, of course, is that though the plot of the movie departs in many ways from that of the novel, yet it is too similar in other respects to escape the charge of plagiarism should the producers pretend it to be an original work. Furthermore, the public’s familiarity with the novel acts as a kind of advertisement. By “familiarity,” however, I do not mean that the public in question have actually read the novel. Far from it. Most people have not read The Last of the Mohicans nor ever will. But they know that it is a classic in American literature, and they figure that even though they have no interest in reading the novel, watching a movie based on that novel might provide them with an evening’s entertainment. Moreover, it is the fact that most people have not read the book that allows the producers of the movie to take liberties with impunity, for the most disappointed members of an audience will usually be those who have read the book and know it well, and they will be few in number. And so, the stories in some of the movie versions of this novel almost seem to be taking place in a parallel universe, where the characters and setting are more or less the same, but the relationships are different and different people live and die in the end. Furthermore, the manner in which the story is changed over the years reflects the sentiments on the part of the producers and the audiences as contemporary values are projected back into the eighteenth century, thereby rendering the past suitable for present consumption. To make matters even more confusing, critics reviewing a movie sometimes project their knowledge of the book into the movie while others project the movie they just saw back into the novel.
In particular, there is the peculiar fact that though the novel involves both a miscegenous couple and a person of mixed race, yet the dramatizations tend to keep the first but avoid the second, and even the first is depicted in various ways and with differing degrees of emphasis. These differences intrigued me, resulting in reflections that led to this essay. In sorting this out, it is necessary to keep in mind the question as to whether James Fenimore Cooper, his audience of readers, the producers of the movie versions, and the audiences of those versions are of the enlightened, egalitarian type, deploring racism, or the racist type, affirming it, interpreting the story respectively as one of undeserved suffering or of punishment for sin.
In sorting out the various ways miscegenation is treated in the novel and the adaptations, I have divided this essay into several parts, this first one being the introduction, of course. This is followed by a review of the novel. Then the adaptations that were made before the Civil Rights Movement are considered, followed by the adaptations made shortly after the beginning of that movement. After that, I discuss the 1992 version, which was made in what might be called our “post-racial society.” I realize there are still problems of race relations to this day, but relatively speaking, they are much diminished from what they once were, as is reflected in this most recent adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, though in a manner that is less than felicitous. Finally, there is the conclusion.
The setting of the novel is the French and Indian War in America in 1757. Natty Bumppo is a major character in this novel as well as in James Fenimore Cooper’s four other Leatherstocking Tales. In this novel, however, he is referred to as Hawkeye and as La Longue Carabine. His two companions are Chingachgook and his son Uncas, the last two members of the Mohican tribe. They are basically on the side of the British. The Hurons are Native Americans that fight on the side of the French. Magua, a Huron by birth, but now an outcast, is the villain. Cora and Alice Munro are daughters of Colonel Munro, commanding officer of Fort William Henry. Cora has black hair. As for her skin, I lack the ability to paraphrase Cooper’s description of her and will thus quote him directly: “Her complexion was not brown, but it rather appeared charged with the color of the rich blood, that seemed ready to burst its bounds.” [p. 26] She has a serious temperament. Alice, the younger of the two sisters, is a blonde with blue eyes and fair skin. She has a lighthearted temperament. Finally, there is Major Duncan Heyward, who is in love with Alice.
The driving force that puts a wedge between this novel and the movie versions that came later is the fact that Cora has a mixed-race heritage. Now, you might think that a novel written in 1826 would have said that Cora was part “Negro,” for that was a polite term in those days. However, the circumlocution by which her father refers to the fact of her mixed-race ancestry is remarkable for its excess of delicacy, worthy of the sensitivities of the twenty-first century. Colonel Munro says of her:
I had seen many regions, and had shed much blood in different lands, before duty called me to the islands of the West Indies. There it was my lot to form a connection with one who in time became my wife, and the mother of Cora. She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady whose misfortune it was, if you will,’ said the old man, proudly, ‘to be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people. [p. 312]
The degree of Cora’s racial mixture is not made explicit. However, Munro’s use of the expression “descended, remotely” implies, at the very least, that the mother of Munro’s first wife was not African, but rather one-half African. From this it would follow that Munro’s wife was one-quarter African and that Cora was one-eighth African.
Perhaps Munro’s avoidance of the word “Negress” and other acceptable terms at that time, like “mulatta,” “quadroon,” or “octoroon,” was due to the fact that it was his daughter Cora he was talking about. In fact, he berates Major Heyward for being a southerner, suggesting that he was prejudiced against her. When Heyward first asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Munro assumed it was Cora he was interested in, for she was the older of the two sisters. When it turned out that Heyward wanted to marry Alice, Munro jumped to the conclusion that he was slighting Cora on account of her dark aspect. He continues:
Ay, sir, that is a curse, entailed on Scotland by her unnatural union with a foreign and trading people. But could I find a man among them who would dare to reflect on my child, he should feel the weight of a father’s anger! Ha! Major Heyward, you are yourself born at the south, where these unfortunate beings are considered of a race inferior to your own.
‘‘Tis most unfortunately true, sir,” said Duncan, unable any longer to prevent his eyes from sinking to the floor in embarrassment. “And you cast it on my child as a reproach! You scorn to mingle the blood of the Heywards with one so degraded — lovely and virtuous though she be?” fiercely demanded the jealous parent. [pp. 312-3]
It is interesting to observe that Munro refers to the part of Cora’s ancestry that is not white as “that unfortunate class,” while in speaking of the attitude of southerners, he uses the expression “considered of a race inferior to your own.” It would, of course, be anachronistic to suggest that Munro is of the opinion that has become fashionable of late that race is just a social construct. More likely, it is an effort on his part to diminish, at least in his own mind, the taboo nature of miscegenation, for marrying someone of another class would not have carried quite the same stigma as marrying someone of another race.
Heyward protests this charge of prejudice against him, saying it is only on account of his love for Alice that he lacks an interest in Cora. In any event, the race in question of which Cora was a part is scarcely referred to elsewhere in the novel, except when Magua goes into a speech about how the Great Spirit colored men differently, intending the black ones to be slaves [p. 599].
The hesitancy on the part of Munro to name explicitly the black race that formed her ancestry was probably more than just sensitivity on his part regarding his daughter. It may be that Cooper wished to avoid offending his readers, who might have flinched at a blunt description of Munro’s first marriage. People in general were uncomfortable with the idea of miscegenation and the offspring they produced. There was a sense that the children of mixed-race couples should not exist. First, the marriage of black and white that brought them into existence was thought to be intrinsically wrong. Second, the offspring of such marriages presented a problem when it came to their getting married: because they are part African, they are too black to marry someone who is white; but being part Caucasian, they are sometimes too white to be suitable for marriage to someone who is black.
Of course, it takes two people from two different races to produce a mixed-race child in the first place. Therefore, it is certainly not out of the question that someone of mixed-race ancestry should find someone to marry too. But Cooper disapproves of miscegenation, so notwithstanding the fact that people had to cross racial lines in order for Cora to be born, Cooper does not want Cora to do likewise and have a child of her own, lest the reader think miscegenation meets with his approval, so he kills her off in the end.
Uncas falls in love with Cora, and she seems to return the feeling. Uncas’ being a Native American, however, does not solve the problem of Cora’s unsuitability for marriage, for she was too white to marry someone of the “red race,” as it were. As a result, Cora has to die in the end, in part because her very mixed-race existence was disturbing, and in part to keep her from marrying Uncas, whom Cooper also kills off, possibly as punishment for wanting a white woman. This is achieved by having Magua forcibly take Cora, intending to make her his squaw. Cora threatens to jump off a cliff to avoid the fate worse than death, but another Huron stabs her in the breast, killing her. Uncas arrives, too late to save her, and he is killed by Magua. Then Hawkeye shoots Magua before he can escape.
At Cora’s funeral, the Native Americans talk about how Uncas and Cora will be spiritually married and live together in the happy hunting ground, but Hawkeye, expressing Cooper’s sentiments, shakes his head “at the error of their simple creed” [p. 686], disapproving of even this much miscegenation.
In other words, though Cooper extols friendship between men of different races as something admirable by having Hawkeye’s best friends be two Mohicans, yet he is unequivocal about his disdain for a sexual mixing of the races. In fact, just in case anyone might have doubts about a white man that hangs out with Native Americans all the time, Hawkeye says at one point, “I am not a prejudiced man, nor one who vaunts himself on his natural privileges, though the worst enemy I have on earth, and he is an Iroquois, daren’t deny that I am genuine white” [pp. 49-50]. This need to affirm the purity of his whiteness was not thought amiss by Cooper when he wrote this novel, but notwithstanding Hawkeye’s insistence that he is not a prejudiced man, his need to assert that he is genuinely white belies that denial. Were anyone today to insist that he was genuinely white, daring anyone to contradict him, we would undoubtedly suspect him of being a white supremacist. Actually, it is probably not so much that Hawkeye, expressing the apprehensions of Cooper, feared that anyone would think him a Native American that worried him, but rather that someone might think he was of mixed race, part European and part Native American. Cooper had a strange ambivalence concerning race. He was fine with men of different races being friends and living amongst each other, but he was averse to the notion of men and women of different races marrying. And because the offspring of such mixed marriages is thought to be something odious, Hawkeye is at pains to declare his racial purity.
After Munro’s first wife died, he married another woman, who is Alice’s mother. As noted above, Alice is blonde with blue eyes and fair skin. Now, it would have been unthinkable to have Alice be the one that Uncas fell in love with and who reciprocated those feelings for him. It was one thing for Colonel Munro’s wife to have been the daughter of a white man and a woman of African descent, taboo though that was, but it would be quite another thing even to suggest that a white woman would have any feelings of affection for someone of another race. Had Uncas and Alice been the ones in the novel to develop a romantic relationship, unconsummated though it may have been, it would not have been sufficient to kill them off in the end. The reading public would have demanded that Cooper be killed off as well. In other words, Cora’s mixed-race ancestry is what allows Cooper to suggest an attraction between her and Uncas. According to Cooper’s way of thinking, it was because Cora was one-eighth African that she was able to find Uncas attractive, whereas a blonde, blue-eyed, unadulterated white woman like Alice would have no natural inclination for men with dark skin.
My conclusion is that while we today read this novel as a tragedy of undeserved suffering caused by a racist society, for Cooper, his story was one of sin and punishment. Cora’s lonely life and unhappy end was the result of her father’s sin of marrying across racial lines. It put her in the position where only a Native American might take an interest in her, and even for that both she and Uncas are punished with death.
Movie Adaptions before the Civil Rights Movement
The 1920 version of The Last of the Mohicans follows the novel pretty closely, as closely as might be expected from a seventy-three minute version of a long, involved novel. The main difference, as far as miscegenation is concerned, is that nothing is said of Cora’s having a mixed-race ancestry. When the movie starts, Cora and Alice are at Fort Edward, which is remote from the fighting. Major Heyward is in love with Alice, just as in the book. There is also a Captain Randolph, a man the intertitle says is more interested in women than warfare, who is in love with Cora. No such character exists in the book.
If we refer back to the discussion between Colonel Munro and Major Heyward, quoted in Part 2 of this essay, we can see why the novel most definitely did not want a character like Captain Randolph in the story to act as a suitor for Cora. First, it is the fact that there was no one asking for Cora’s hand in marriage that leads to the misunderstanding about which daughter Heyward wanted to marry, which in turn leads to the discussion of Cora’s mixed-race ancestry. Second, the fact that there is no white man in the novel who wants to marry Cora is not just an accident of circumstance. Rather, it represents the more general situation regarding Cora, which is that her being part African makes her a dubious match for a Caucasian. But once the producers of this movie decided to omit Cora’s mixed-race ancestry, there no longer was a good reason for her not to be of some interest to one of the officers, and so a Captain Randolph was created to fill that void. As for Hawkeye, he is asexual and has no interest in either of the women, just as in the novel.
Randolph, out of cowardice, becomes a traitor and betrays the British when they get to Fort William Henry. Shortly thereafter, he is killed. He never had much of a chance with Cora in the beginning of the movie, and he had no chance at all once she became enamored of Uncas. As in the novel, she and Uncas fall in love, and as in the novel, their miscegenous inclinations are prevented by having them die in the end. In this case, Cora tries to jump off a cliff to get away from Magua (Wallace Beery), but changes her mind when she sees Uncas coming to rescue her. She grabs on to Magua who was trying to stop her. But when Magua sees Uncas, he uses his knife to make her let go, just to spite Uncas, whom he then kills in turn.
In the 1936 movie version, we see right off the bat that the whole business about Cora’s mixed-race ancestry is going to be omitted, for it is Alice who is the brunette and Cora who is the blonde. In fact, one with a suspicious turn of mind might wonder if the switching of hair color was the result of a deliberate effort to eliminate the dark truth about Cora’s ancestry even in the minds of those few in the audience that might have read the book. More likely, it is just the result of complete contempt for the story on the part of the producer, who may not have even bothered to read the book himself.
To make matters even more confusing, their personalities are switched. Cora, now the blonde, is like the blonde Alice in the novel, lighthearted but weak. Alice, now the brunette, is like the brunette Cora of the novel, serious but strong. If Major Heyward were in love with Cora, we might figure that those who produced this movie just got the names mixed up. But no, Heyward is in love with Alice, just as in the book. Only in the movie, his love is unrequited. This is so she can fall in love with Hawkeye (Randolph Scott), who in turn falls in love with her. When the movie ends, we are led to believe that they will eventually marry.
Needless to say, this is a very different Hawkeye from the asexual man of nature in the novel. But it is a development not unexpected. It may have been all right for heroes in nineteenth century fiction to be celibate, but the twentieth century seemed to be uneasy with men like that. So, finding a woman for Hawkeye was just the thing in 1936.
I noted in Part 1 that some critics project what they see in a movie back into the book. One reviewer of this 1936 version (TCM) says, “You may recall from your high school literature class that Alice will eventually fall for Hawkeye….” Well, you may recall that, but hopefully you do not, because no such thing happened in the novel.
As for Cora, her father says that she was engaged to be married to a young man who was lost at sea in a naval battle. So, like the 1920 version, it is made clear that she is suitable for marriage to a white man, whereas in the novel, long before we are made aware of Cora’s mixed-race ancestry, we feel the tension in Cora’s situation by having her be an older sister with no suitor, past or present, despite the fact that she is a beautiful woman.
The miscegenation involved in Cora’s ancestry may have been omitted in this movie, but the threat of miscegenation between Cora and Uncas has not. And what is striking about this is that there is more tolerance in the movies for miscegenation when the white woman is a brunette than when she is a blonde, as Cora is here. However, this difficulty is skirted by having the affection between Uncas and Cora go primarily in one direction: Uncas is in love with Cora, but she seems only to like him.
Just as the critic reviewing this movie for TCM “remembered” Alice falling for Hawkeye in the novel, so too do some critics (Variety, Ozus) see things in this movie that were only in the novel. In particular, they say Cora falls in love with Uncas, but I think the authors of those reviews must be bringing their knowledge of the novel to the movie, for I do not see it in the movie itself. In fact, Cora continually refers to the man to whom she was once engaged, presumably as a way of reassuring the audience that she cannot be in love with Uncas, if she still loves her deceased fiancé. So, in addition to making it clear to the audience that Cora would have been suitable as a bride for a white man, adding this deceased fiancé to the story, one whom she still loves and grieves for, was presumably intended to keep the audience from supposing that she might have romantic feelings for Uncas. Still, things get a little too close for comfort, so she still has to die in the end by flinging herself off a cliff to avoid the fate worse than death.
Movie Adaptations after the Civil Rights Movement
Two versions of this novel were made in 1965, both foreign films, one going by the English title The Last Tomahawk and the other by the English title The Fall of the Mohicans, only the second of which was available for viewing. In this latter film, both Cora and Alice are brunettes, but like the 1936 version, their personalities are reversed from that of the novel, with Alice having the stronger character. Major Heyward acts as though he has no interest in her. In fact, he seems to despise her. But finally, after the surrender of Fort William Henry and the massacre by the Hurons, when Heyward and Alice are captives thinking they are about to be put to death, he tells Alice he loves her. If there is a reason for deviating from the novel in this way, I cannot imagine what it is.
The only thing that seems to remain constant in these movies thus far is that the one named Cora, regardless of her hair color or personality, is the one whom Uncas falls in love with. One almost gets the sense that once Cora’s mixed-race ancestry had been eliminated from the story, the people that produced these movies saw no need to worry about which sister had what color of hair or what kind of personality, who was loved by Uncas, or who died in the end. And to a certain extent, I guess they are right.
This version makes it explicitly clear what Cora’s feelings are toward Uncas, for she says to him, “I love you.” Chingachgook, however, disapproves, telling Uncas that he must perpetuate the Mohican line by marrying a Mohican woman. It seems the producers of this movie have forgotten that the reason for the title of the book is that there are no more Mohican women around for that purpose.
Uncas and Cora die in the end, but not in the usual way. Uncas and Magua (called “Cunning Fox” in this movie) fight to see who will get Cora in a camp of the Delawares. When Uncas kills Magua, another Huron shoots an arrow into Cora for spite, and then another puts a spear in Uncas’ back. So, there is no leaping off the cliff to escape the fate worse than death for Cora. Of course, neither was there any leaping off the cliff at the end of the novel. But the producers of most of the movies apparently figure that as long as Cora has to die and there is a cliff handy, she might as well jump off it. One wonders if Cooper wanted to suggest that as a possibility by having the scene of Cora’s death occur near a cliff, but then pulled back from it and had her stabbed to death instead so that she would not have to go to Hell for committing suicide. But I digress.
At their funeral, the Delaware chief Tamenund says that Uncas and Cora are together in the happy hunting ground, just as in the book. But unlike the book, we do not see Hawkeye shake his head in disapproval at the thought of miscegenation, even in a spiritual sense, in some afterlife. So, owing to the Civil Rights Movement, Hawkeye has become more tolerant in this regard.
In 1971, a BBC TV mini-series was produced, but which I have been unable to see. (I could buy the DVD, but I am more of a cheapskate than a film scholar.) From what I can gather, however, it is the most faithful adaptation of the novel. In particular, Cora’s mixed-race ancestry is actually referred to in gossip, which has it that Cora’s grandmother was a one-half African. Given the year in which this mini-series was made, it makes sense that both elements of miscegenation were finally able to become part of an adaptation. In fact, as we shall see, it turns out to be an inflection point, after which the elements of miscegenation begin to fade away.
Then there is the 1977 made-for-television movie. As in the 1965 adaptation, Alice and Cora are both brunettes. Even if, like most movies, the part about Cora’s mixed-race mother from the West Indies is omitted, one might think that Alice and Cora would still be distinguished by the color of their hair, one being blonde and the other brunette, as a way of staying faithful to the book regarding Cora’s black ancestry while avoiding any explicit reference to it. Still, the important thing is that even though the year of production is 1977, a time when much progress had been made in the realm of civil rights, and ten years after anti-miscegenation laws had been ruled unconstitutional, and, I might add, ten years after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, there is no hint of Cora’s ancestry being anything other than white.
The reason for avoiding Cora’s mixed-race ancestry in the late 1970s, however, is not likely to be the same reason for avoiding it in 1920 or 1936. Instead, it was probably a simple matter of budgetary considerations. To keep production costs low, those who produced this movie never filmed any scenes that take place at Fort William Henry. Except for a brief scene at Fort Edward in the beginning, all we get to see are the scenes that take place in the forests or in some Native American camps. Only at the very end of the movie do we hear about the surrender of the fort and the subsequent massacre from a couple of officers. Therefore, because Heyward never makes it to the fort in this movie, he cannot have the conversation about Cora’s racial ancestry with Colonel Munro.
Cora does not die in the end. In fact, she does not even threaten to jump off a cliff, although she is close to one. Magua tries to shoot her out of spite, but Uncas jumps in front of her and takes the bullet. Chingachgook then kills Magua. In other words, by 1977, attitudes about race in America had improved to the point that Cora’s love for a Native American no longer necessitated her death. Having gone this far, one might wonder why they didn’t just go ahead and let Uncas live too, so that he and Cora could get married and live happily ever after. You might suppose that they couldn’t do that because Uncas and Cora would have had children, thereby perpetuating the Mohican line, which would contradict the title of the movie. But that would not really be a problem on account of the whole prejudice against miscegenation and the offspring arising therefrom. In other words, Uncas and Chingachgook would still be the last of the Mohicans because half-breeds don’t count. And so, notwithstanding the willingness of the producers of these movies to change around the story regarding who loves whom and who lives or dies, they just could not bring themselves to spare Uncas right along with Cora.
The Post-Racial Period
For all the changes in the personalities of the two sisters and their hair color in the previous versions of the novel, at least they were consistent on one point, which is that Cora was the one that Uncas fell in love with. No longer. In this version, Uncas falls in love with Alice (Jodhi May) instead of Cora (Madeleine Stowe). In any event, we are prepared for Uncas to fall in love with somebody when, near the beginning of the movie, someone remarks that it is high time Uncas found himself a woman and married her. So later, when we see him looking at Alice with longing, we know what he has on his mind. However, there is no indication that Alice feels anything for him, at least not in the version I saw. There is some footage showing Uncas holding her while she appears to be in shock, and I suppose that made it into the director’s cut. Moreover, some say there is a screenplay indicating a love scene between them, but if so, the fact that these scenes never made it into the theatrical release is the result of choices made by those who produced this movie.
Anyway, this time it is Cora instead of Alice whom Heyward is in love with, but she declines his offer of marriage because she falls in love with Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) with whom she has a sex scene of sorts. The reason for the sex scene—which is either really passionate hugging and kissing or actual intercourse with their clothes on—may have been homophobia: the scene was needed to preclude the possibility of a homoerotic interpretation. This was not a consideration in the earlier versions, but by 1992, the idea that Hawkeye would live in the woods with two Mohican men, without having any interest in women, would have created a vacuum, regarding which suspicions of homosexuality were bound to rush in.
Unlike Cora, Alice has no suitor. And who can be surprised? She is a big nothing, just a pretty face. I don’t know what Uncas saw in her. I guess it was the pretty face. It seems to be enough for some men. Furthermore, as she is the younger sister, the fact that no white man is interested in her is not as suspicious as when she, under the original name of Cora, was the older sister and had no suitor. She flings herself off the cliff in the end, and the synopsis on IMDb says it is to “join Uncas in death,” but once again one suspects this would be the result of projecting the novel (or some previously watched adaptation of such) into this movie. Rather, she could easily have leapt to her death just to avoid becoming Magua’s squaw.
Actually, her leaping to her death seems rather pointless. Since we are given no reason to think she is in love with Uncas, his death would not be sufficient reason for her to take her own life. As far as the old fate-worse-than-death motive is concerned, this was already scotched by Hawkeye when he told Cora to “submit” if she is captured, that he will find her and rescue her. In other words, the attitude in this movie is that being raped by a Native American is no longer a fate worse than death, an attitude fitting for a post-racial society. Better to let Magua have his way with her until Hawkeye had a chance to enable her to escape. You might argue that Alice never got the word, that she was still laboring under the old values, which held that a woman must preserve her honor at all costs. But while we are watching the movie, we find it hard to make this distinction. Once Hawkeye has affirmed authoritatively that a woman should try to stay alive even at the price of being raped by a man of a different race, we cannot help but regard Alice’s leap to her death as misguided. And as we see in the subsequent scenes, she would indeed have been rescued without being raped had she just continued to allow herself to be held captive.
In my discussion of the novel, I concluded that for Cooper, his story was about the sin and punishment of miscegenation, while most people today would understand it as a story of innocent people being forced to suffer in a society that forbids love between people of different races. Regardless of how the story is understood, however, the effect is intensified if Cora’s mixed-race ancestry is a part of it, especially since it is this that leads to her being attracted to Uncas. So, why would the movies, with the exception of the BBC mini-series, invariably omit it?
The 1920 version of this novel was produced just five years after Birth of a Nation, in which the villains of the piece are both “mulattoes,” one instigating the Civil War, the other causing discord during Reconstruction. If the audiences at that time were inclined to think of such people as inherently evil, small wonder then that this had to be suppressed in the case of Cora, for she is no villainess. On the other hand, miscegenation between Caucasians and Native Americans was somewhat more acceptable, as can be seen from the successful movie The Squaw Man (1914) and its remakes, although an unhappy ending is still necessitated. However, in The Squaw Man, the man is white and woman is Native American, so their union in marriage is allowed, even if finally ending tragically. In The Last of the Mohicans, however, the woman is white and the man is Native American. There is always less tolerance for miscegenation when it is the woman who is white and it is the man who is of another race. Therefore, the love between Uncas and Cora had to remain unconsummated.
For similar reasons, the 1936 version also suppressed Cora’s mixed-race ancestry, especially since it was made three years after the Production Code began to be rigorously enforced. Cora’s affection for Uncas is downplayed, but Uncas is still portrayed as being in love with Cora, so that is enough to necessitate the death of both of them.
The 1965 version was made one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. As a result, it does not hesitate to allow Cora to openly declare her love for Uncas. One would think the time had finally arrived to allow Cora’s mixed-race ancestry to be made explicit. The fact that it is not may be laziness on the part of the producers, who were content to follow the lead of the previously made movies rather than worry about the novel, especially since it is a cheaply made foreign film.
Though I have not seen the 1971 version produced by the BBC, from what I gather, both Cora’s mixed race ancestry and her love for Uncas are part of the plot. This is exactly what one would expect, given the climate regarding race relations at that time.
The 1977 version was such a cheesy production that I don’t think much should be made of it. Cora’s mixed-race ancestry is omitted, but this version is unique in allowing Cora’s love for Uncas to go unpunished, though Uncas is not vouchsafed the same consideration.
This leaves us with the 1992 version, which omits Cora’s (i.e., Alice’s) mixed-race ancestry and gives no indication of any feeling between Cora (i.e., Alice) and Uncas. Given the fact that this was a big budget production, one would think that the time was ripe for a movie that not only kept the names and hair colors straight, but also emphasized both Cora’s mixed-race ancestry and her love for Uncas.
Now, some apologists for this version point to the fact that the director, Michael Mann, said that his movie was based on the 1936 version rather than the book. But is that an explanation or an excuse? In other words, I suspect that Michael Mann wanted to avoid the whole issue of miscegenation, and knowing the prominent role it played in the novel, he skirted the issue by claiming that his movie is more of a remake than an adaptation.
Had this movie been made before the 1960s, the reason for suppressing the two elements of miscegenation would have been the one given previously for the 1920 and 1936 versions, which is that audiences were still uncomfortable with people marrying across racial lines and having mixed-race children. But that can no longer be the motive here, for as we have seen, when the 1971 mini-series was produced, including both elements of miscegenation, the times had changed to the point that this was no longer a problem.
As best as I can tell, this leaves us with only one reason why Michael Mann left out or greatly minimized the elements of miscegenation. He didn’t think it was important. He figured no one would any longer care if one of the sisters were of mixed-race ancestry or if she were in love with a Native American, on account of the times having changed so much. But by that kind of reasoning, we might as well not make a movie about the French and Indian War, for no one cares about that anymore either. In other words, just as audiences have no trouble taking an interest in a war of minor importance historically, so too do audiences have no trouble becoming emotionally involved in conflicts between individuals and society, even if such conflicts no longer exist. By leaving out the elements of miscegenation, Mann cut the guts out of the story. His version of The Last of the Mohicans seems to be neither a story of punishment for sin nor of innocent suffering at the hands of an intolerant society, but just an action/adventure costume drama in which a couple of the characters die in the end for no better reason than that’s what happened to them in the other movies.
However, there is still hope. Just as attitudes about race have changed over the years, so too has there been a change in attitudes about homosexuality. Undoubtedly, another version of The Last of the Mohicans will someday be made, and a future director, unconcerned with the possibility of a homoerotic interpretation, may allow Hawkeye to be ostensibly celibate, just as in the novel, while letting those who wish to interpret his relationship with Chingachgook as being something more than friendship do so. And if that same director is alert to the universal theme of the individual against society, he may see that the two elements of miscegenation in the novel can be resurrected to good effect.