Brideshead Revisited:  The Book and the Adaptations

The message of Brideshead Revisited  is that people who don’t believe in God are superficial.  Charles Ryder, the narrator of this novel, exemplifies this principle.  He is all about art and the pleasures of the palate.  That is to say, his interests are in the realm of the appearances.  He leads a sensuous existence.  He becomes fascinated with the Flyte family.  They are a bunch of Catholics, though of various sorts, from the devout to the lapsed.  But in any event, believing in God as they do, their lives have depth and significance.  Almost unconsciously, Ryder is drawn to the Flytes for that reason.

If Ryder were just a man who enjoyed the arts and liked to dine on good food and drink, it would not be so bad.  But he lays it on so thick, with language so flowery and ornate, that one cannot help but think that he takes himself way too seriously.  For example, when he encounters Lady Julia Flyte after not having seen her for some time, he says:

She was not yet thirty, but was approaching the zenith of her loveliness, all her rich promise abundantly fulfilled. She had lost that fashionable, spidery look; the head that I used to think quattrocento, which had sat a little oddly on her, was now part of herself and not at all Florentine; not connected in any way with painting or the arts or with anything except herself, so that it would be idle to itemize and dissect her beauty, which was her own essence, and could only be known in her and by her authority and in the love I was soon to have for her. Time had wrought another change, too; not for her the sly, complacent smile of la Gioconda; the years had been more than ‘the sound of lyres and flutes’, and had saddened her.

I don’t know about you, but if I found myself sitting at a table with someone who talked that way, I would plead a headache and bolt for the exit.  Her head was no longer quattrocento indeed!  And did you catch the bit about la Gioconda?  He’s not satisfied with comparing her to the Mona Lisa, which would be absurd enough for anyone but Nat King Cole.  He has to refer to that painting by its Italian name, just to put us ignorant philistines in our place, who had to Google the name to find that out.

Of course, Ryder talks this way because the author, Evelyn Waugh, put those words into his mouth.  Perhaps this was Waugh’s way of ridiculing people like Ryder who don’t believe in God, showing them to be affected as a way of compensating for a life that is hollow and without significance.  But then, since Ryder’s narration takes place after his conversion to Catholicism, it appears that if someone is insufferably pretentious to begin with, his believing in God isn’t going to make much difference.

As far as the adaptations go, there is a change that I found interesting.  When Ryder is dining with the Flyte family in the novel, Sebastian refers to Ryder as an atheist, but Ryder corrects him, saying he is an agnostic.  The 1981 mini-series follows the novel in this.  But the movie version produced in 2008 reverses the dialogue, so that when Sebastian says that Ryder is an atheist, “Bridey” (Lord Brideshead) says, “An agnostic, surely,” to which Ryder emphatically denies being an agnostic and asserts that he is indeed an atheist.

I suspect that the reason for this reversal of terms is due to the change in connotation of the word “agnostic” between 1945 and 2008.  At the time the novel was written, the word “agnostic” was sufficiently scandalous and shocking for a character like Ryder.  By the late 1960s, it had lost its edge.  It suggested someone who was wishy-washy, someone who didn’t want to appear naively religious, but was still hoping for some kind of afterlife all the same.  By the turn of the twenty-first century, this shift in meaning had become even more pronounced.  Only by changing Ryder into an atheist could his conversion to Catholicism actually seem to amount to something.


The Big Sleep: The Book and the Adaptations

All right, we’ve all heard the story about how The Big Sleep (1946) has the most complicated and confusing plot of any film noir ever made; and so much so that when the director, Howard Hawks, and the screenwriters could not figure out what caused the death of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, they cabled Raymond Chandler, the author of the novel that the movie was based on, and asked him about it, and he confessed that he did not know either.  This is not to say that one cannot come up with a reasonable explanation for Taylor’s death, for more than one is possible, but it is the mere fact that Chandler so confused himself with his convoluted plot that he neglected to account for Taylor’s death that makes the anecdote forever an essential part of the movie.  No critic can now discuss The Big Sleep without mentioning it.  Just for the fun of it, then, let us examine the matter in more detail.  We will begin with the movie and summarize only that part of the plot that concerns the death of the Sternwood chauffeur.

Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by General Sternwood, because he is being blackmailed by a man named Arthur Geiger, after having previously been blackmailed by a man named Joe Brody.  Ostensibly, General Sternwood has merely been presented with gambling debts in the form of markers signed by his daughter Carmen, but he suspects something more scandalous may be involved, otherwise he would simply pay off the debts.  He wants Marlowe to take care of Geiger permanently.

It turns out that Geiger runs a bookstore that is a front for pornography.  Marlowe follows him to a house, where soon after Carmen drives up and enters the house too.  The purpose of their meeting is so that she can pose for some pornographic pictures in exchange for a fix.  After sitting outside in his car for a while, Marlowe hears shots being fired, after which two cars drive off, one right behind the other.  Marlowe enters to find Geiger dead in front of some surreptitious camera equipment while Carmen is all doped up, sitting on some special chair for picture taking.  She is fully dressed, but given the Production Code at the time, we can hardly have expected otherwise.  In the novel, she is naked.  Marlowe discovers that the film has been removed from the camera.

Later that night, Bernie, a homicide detective who recommended Marlowe to General Sternwood, shows up at Marlowe’s apartment.  He tells him that a Packard belonging to the Sternwood family is in the surf right off Lido Pier.  Inside the Packard is Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, who, we find out, was in love with Carmen.  The doctor at the pier says Taylor was hit with something.  When Marlowe suggests a blackjack, the doctor says that is a possibility.  When Bernie wonders aloud if the death of Taylor was a suicide or an accident, Marlowe says it was neither, which means it was murder. And that seems to square with the fact that the throttle was set halfway down, indicating that someone besides Taylor set the car in motion.

The next morning, Carmen’s sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall) comes to Marlowe’s office to show him a picture that was sent to her, presumably one that was taken the night before, with a blackmail demand for five thousand dollars.  We don’t get to see the picture, but the novel refers to it as a nude photo.

Marlowe manages to figure out that Joe Brody is the one now blackmailing the Sternwood family.  He confronts Brody, who finally admits that he was sitting in a car in back of Geiger’s house the previous night, hoping to get something on him.  He saw the Packard and found out it was registered to the Sternwoods.  Brody says he got tired of waiting, and so he went home.

Marlowe knows that Brody is lying.  He tells Brody that the Packard was fished out of the water with the body of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, in it.  He goes on to say that Taylor went over to Geiger’s house because he was in love with Carmen, and because he didn’t like what Geiger was doing with her.  He jimmied his way in through the back door and shot Geiger.  Then he grabbed the film, got in the Packard, and drove off.

Brody then admits that he followed Taylor, and when the car slid off the road, he went up to it and played copper.  Taylor pulled his gun, so Brody says he sapped him.  Then he saw the film and took it.  That was the last he saw him, Brody concludes.  Marlowe doesn’t buy it, because, he points out, that would mean someone else came along later, drove the car to the pier, and sent it into the water.

Someone rings the doorbell, and when Brody answers it, he is shot by Carol Lundgren, who the novel indicates is Geiger’s homosexual lover.  He thought Brody killed Geiger and was seeking revenge.  If he had known Taylor killed Geiger, he would have gone after him instead of Brody.  In other words, it is not Lundgren who killed Taylor.

This is as far as the movie goes regarding the death of Taylor.  The important thing about Marlowe’s statement that his death was the result neither of an accident nor suicide is that he speaks with an authoritative voice.  In other words, in real life, we would say that Marlowe’s assertion is just his opinion.  But in a movie like this, if Marlowe says it’s murder, then it’s murder.  Given that it is murder, then the most reasonable suspect is Brody.  He admits everything else:  he followed the Packard until it slid off the road, and he hit Taylor with a blackjack.

Being hit with a blackjack is not necessarily fatal, but it certainly could be.  In real life, that is.  But there is a convention in the movies that when a man is hit in the head, it typically only knocks him out temporarily.  In Murder, My Sweet (1944), based on another Chandler novel, a man named Marriott is killed when someone hits him with sap several times, but that is an exception.  In fact, in the same movie, Marlowe is hit hard enough to knock him out a couple of times, but in each case, the only effect is a temporary loss of consciousness.  In other words, when Brody says he only hit Taylor with a blackjack and did not kill him, it is this movie convention that allows us to believe him.  In real life, we would suspect that the blow to the head killed Taylor, and Brody decided to put the car in the drink to make it look like an accident.  And we have no reason to believe Brody, for being the seedy blackmailer that he is, he would hardly flinch from lying about the matter.  Besides, are we to believe that while Brody was following Taylor, someone else was following Brody, even though Marlowe was parked outside Geiger’s house and saw no third car in pursuit.  And if no one followed Brody, are we to believe that some perfect stranger came along, found an unconscious man in the Packard, drove it to the pier, set the throttle halfway down, and sent it through the railing, just because he could?

Now, most of us, when watching the movie the first time, forget all about Owen Taylor just as Chandler apparently did in writing the novel.  But even after repeated viewings, especially after having been made aware of the anecdote that began this essay, we are still reluctant to conclude that it is Brody.  In real life, we would have no such reticence.  But this is a movie, and what we lack is someone’s authoritative voice on the subject.  Just as we believe Taylor was murdered on account of Marlowe’s authoritative voice, so too does the lack of that voice leave us without a solution.  That is to say, another convention of a murder mystery is that someone with authority must make a pronouncement as to who done it.  It might be in the form of a pronouncement by a private eye or a cop, or it might be a confession by one of the suspects.  But someone has to say something, by jingo!  Because the movie lacks such a declaration, by Marlowe or anyone else, we just do not feel right about drawing the conclusion all on our own that Brody killed Taylor.

With the movie, it is only the absence of an authoritative voice that makes us shy away from accusing Brody of the murder.  In the novel, however, Marlowe lends his authoritative voice to making an affirmative case that Brody did not do it.  Taggart Wilde, the District Attorney, suggests that Brody might have killed both Geiger and Taylor, but Marlowe makes short work of that argument:

“What makes you so sure, Marlowe, that this Taylor boy shot Geiger? Even if the gun that killed Geiger was found on Taylor’s body or in the car, it doesn’t absolutely follow that he was the killer. The gun might have been planted—say by Brody, the actual killer.”

“It’s physically possible,” I said, “but morally impossible. It assumes too much coincidence and too much that’s out of character for Brody and his girl, and out of character for what he was trying to do. I talked to Brody for a long time. He was a crook, but not a killer type. He had two guns, but he wasn’t wearing either of them. He was trying to find a way to cut in on Geiger’s racket, which naturally he knew all about from the girl. He says he was watching Geiger off and on to see if he had any tough backers. I believe him. To suppose he killed Geiger in order to get his books, then scrammed with the nude photo Geiger had just taken of Carmen Sternwood, then planted the gun on Owen Taylor and pushed Taylor into the ocean off Lido, is to suppose a hell of a lot too much. Taylor had the motive, jealous rage, and the opportunity to kill Geiger. He was out in one of the family cars without permission. He killed Geiger right in front of the girl, which Brody would never have done, even if he had been a killer. I can’t see anybody with a purely commercial interest in Geiger doing that. But Taylor would have done it. The nude photo business was just what would have made him do it.”

In real life, this argument would not stop us for a moment.  Even if Brody is not the killer type, if he hit Taylor with a blackjack hard enough to knock him out, then he hit him hard enough to kill him.  And while Brody might not have intended to kill him, he would certainly rise to the occasion if he accidentally did so and send Taylor and the car off the pier.  But Marlowe’s authoritative voice in the novel trumps any reasonable conclusion that we might have in real life.  No wonder Chandler didn’t know who killed Taylor.  He really boxed himself in with Marlowe’s asseverations.

But let’s back up for a minute.  In the movie, Marlowe’s authoritative voice makes it certain that Taylor was murdered.  In the novel, however, there are three different opinions as to the cause of Taylor’s death, none of them Marlowe’s:

The uniformed man said: “Could have been drunk. Showing off all alone in the rain. Drunks will do anything.”

“Drunk, hell,” the plainclothesman said. “The hand throttle’s set halfway down and the guy’s been sapped on the side of the head. Ask me and I’ll call it murder.”

Ohls looked at the man with the towel. “What do you think, buddy?”

The man with the towel looked flattered. He grinned. “I say suicide, Mac. None of my business, but you ask me, I say suicide. First off the guy plowed an awful straight furrow down that pier. You can read his tread marks all the way nearly. That puts it after the rain like the Sheriff said. Then he hit the pier hard and clean or he don’t go through and land right side up. More likely turned over a couple of times. So he had plenty of speed and hit the rail square. That’s more than half-throttle. He could have done that with his hand falling and he could have hurt his head falling too.”

So, in the novel, if no sense can be made out of Taylor’s being murdered, there seems to be room for either an accident or suicide.  A man just having been sapped might be so groggy as to accidentally drive off a pier.  And Taylor might have been so despondent when Brody took the film, that he decided to commit suicide by driving off the pier, though why he wouldn’t use the gun he had on him at the time would be a mystery all by itself, especially when you consider that driving off a pier might not be successful, and he could have ended up in an Ethan Frome situation.

In the novel, the newspaper states that Taylor’s death was a suicide, but we gather that this is the result either of journalistic incompetence or of a cover story put forward by the Sternwood family to avoid a scandal, not to mention Carmen’s complicity in a murder of her own.

And for what it is worth, in the remake of this movie in 1978, a detective asks Marlowe, when things are being wrapped up, if Taylor’s death was a suicide, and Marlowe says that he thinks so.  Well, Marlowe’s authoritative voice may suffice for that movie, but it carries no retroactive weight for the 1946 version, which is the only one that matters.

Ultimately, however, we love the story that not even Chandler knew who killed Owen Taylor so much that we really don’t want a definitive answer.

Farewell, My Lovely:  The Book and the Adaptations

If you are not clear on the distinction between an ordinary detective movie that was filmed a long time ago in black and white, a film noir, and a neo-noir, then you might try watching the three adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely.  Begin with Murder, My Sweet (1944).  This movie not only follows the novel’s plot reasonably well, but it also has the same tone.  More to the point, it is as good an example of film noir as one might want.

An earlier version of this novel is The Falcon Takes Over (1942).  Even though it is a black-and-white detective movie from the 1940s, it absolutely does not qualify as film noir.  The detective is Gay Lawrence, known as “the Falcon,” rather than the novel’s Philip Marlowe.  The Falcon is an English gentleman who is an amateur sleuth, whereas Philip Marlowe is a hard-boiled, American, professional private eye. Moreover, the Falcon has a sidekick who is supposed to provide comic relief, whereas Marlowe works alone, the only humor being his wisecracks.  As a result, the tone of this version is most decidedly not film noir.

The third adaptation, made in 1975, is the only one to take its title from the novel. The movie has elements of the noir style, unlike The Falcon Takes Over, but it does not qualify as film noir primarily because there is a self-conscious aspect to it, which is what distinguishes neo-noir from film noir proper.  Unlike the traditional film noir, this version was made in color.  But it would not have helped if it had been made in black and white, because the day had passed when studios made black and white movies to hold down the cost.  By the 1970s, movies that were made in black and white were done so for artistic reasons.  So, we would have been saying to ourselves, “Oh, it’s in black and white, just like a film noir.

Then there is the setting.  Just as a choice had to be made about color versus black and white, so too did a conscious choice have to be made between the original setting and a contemporary one.  The 1970s just do not have the same cultural feel as the 1940s.  For example, if a private detective in the 1970s wore a trench coat and a fedora, we would think he was some kind of Don Quixote who had seen too many films noir and was trying to be like those romanticized detectives of fiction.  For that reason, perhaps, the movie was set in the 1940s.  But now when we see the trench coat and the fedora, we check them off, as if they were items on a list of things that every film noir private detective must have.  Furthermore, there are a few elements from the 1970s that work their way into this movie, and those too we know to be a self-conscious choice.  And so, the self-conscious choices that must be made by producers and are recognized as such by the audience are what place this and other movies like it in the neo-noir category.

An American Tragedy:  The Book and the Adaptations

An American Tragedy is a book by Theodore Dreiser.  It is a long complex novel, but in its essentials it boils down to this:  boy meets girl, boy gets girl pregnant, boy meets another girl he likes better, boy kills the first girl, boy is executed for murder.

They have names, of course:  the boy is Clyde, the first girl is Roberta, and the second girl is Sondra.  Now, Clyde doesn’t actually kill Roberta.  He planned to drown her and make it look like an accident.  He gets her out into the middle of the lake in a rowboat, knowing she cannot swim.  But then he thinks he cannot do it.  But then he thinks he will.  He might as well be picking petals off a daisy:  “I kill her, I kill her not, I kill her, I kill her not.”  Anyway, she ends up falling overboard and drowns just as he was thinking, “I kill her not.”  Notwithstanding all the planning he put into this murder that he changed his mind on at the last minute but which had the same result anyway, his identity is discovered, he is tried for murder, convicted, and executed.

The first film adaptation, released in 1931, has the same title as the novel, and the three principal characters have the same names.  The second adaptation, made in 1951, has a title that is different from the novel, A Place in the Sun, and the characters have different names.  Don’t ask me why.  In most respects, the second adaptation is a much better movie.  It was directed by George Stevens, starring Montgomery Clift as Clyde = George; Shelley Winters as Roberta = Alice; and Elizabeth Taylor as Sondra = Angela.  (For the sake of consistency, I will continue to the use the names in the novel.)

But in one respect, the first adaptation is better, and so much so in this respect that I prefer this version to the second.  In the movie An American Tragedy, Roberta is played by Silvia Sidney.  We readily believe in her naïve innocence.  She seems like the Roberta of the novel, a woman we like and feel sorry for.  As noted above, however, in A Place in the Sun, Roberta is played by Shelley Winters.  I don’t know what Shelley Winters was like as a person, but her screen persona simply is not the sweet, innocent virgin for whom we are supposed to have sympathy because she was taken advantage of by a man.  On the contrary, she seems suited for roles in which she is a hardboiled broad, as in Alfie (1966) or Bloody Mama (1970).  As a result, when she is taken advantage of by a man in a movie, we are more likely to think she is dumb than naïve.

Partly as a result of this difference, we are sad when Silvia Sidney’s Roberta drowns.  As for Shelley Winters’ Roberta, however, we know we are supposed to feel sorry for her, and we do a little bit, but the fact is that we never really mind when Shelley Winters dies in a movie.  For example, the fact that she drowns in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) does not spoil our sense that the movie has a happy ending.  A third movie in which Shelley Winters drowns is The Night of the Hunter (1955), murdered by her newlywed psychopathic husband, played by Robert Mitchum.  Now, Robert Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell, is supposed to be as bad as they come, so you would think they would have allowed him to kill a more likable actress, like Jane Wyatt, for instance, so that we would really think Harry is evil.  But they picked Shelley Winters to be his victim so that we would not spend the rest of the movie feeling sorry for her.

In other words, if A Place in the Sun had starred an actress to play Roberta who would have been more believably innocent and whose death would have been more disturbing, then we would have been appropriately outraged that Clyde would have even thought about abandoning her, let alone make elaborate plans to murder her, just as we are when we read the novel.  But with Shelley Winters playing the part, her death really seems to be no great loss, and we end up feeling sorrier for Clyde, played by the likable Montgomery Clift, than we do for Roberta.

The Last of the Mohicans:  The Book and Its Adaptations


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 Novel

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 (VarietyOzus) 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.

Excalibur (1981)

In discussing any story about King Arthur, one first must distinguish between the historical King Arthur and the King Arthur of legend.  Of what we know of the historical King Arthur, there is too little on which to base a movie; of what we know of the legendary King Arthur, there is too much.  Therefore, when one sets out to tell a story about Arthur, it is not merely that the author is likely to take liberties with the source material.  He must do so, or else the result will be a ponderous mess.

Mostly, it is a matter of simplification, which involves eliminating many of the characters and stories about them.  In Excalibur, the title tells us that the unifying principle of this movie about King Arthur will be a sword.  In many versions of the Arthurian legend, Arthur becomes king by pulling a sword out of a stone; and then, somewhat later, he receives Excalibur, a completely different sword, from the Lady of the Lake.  That is one magical sword too many.  But it gets worse.  In Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, the basic source material for this movie, there are two more stories about two more swords sticking out of two more stones.  Apparently, the idea of a sword sticking out of a stone was so fascinating that it ended up being used a couple more times; but the effect is to make it seem rather commonplace, as if there were swords sticking out of stones all over England, and every other Tuesday some knight would run across one and try to pull it out.

Less is more, and so later versions of the Arthurian legend tend to have only one sword sticking out of one stone, the one Arthur pulls out, and it is the same sword Excalibur that comes from the Lady of the Lake.  So it is with the movie Excalibur. This is accomplished by having Merlin (Nicol Williamson) secure Excalibur for Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) to help him wage war against the Duke of Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) and become ruler of all of England.  It is Merlin’s hope that the truce will result in a permanent peace, enforced by this enchanted sword.

And so it would probably have been were it not for a disrupting force that recurs throughout this movie:  women.  At a party at Cornwall’s castle celebrating the truce, Cornwall has his wife Igrayne (Katrine Boorman) entertain the guests by dancing.  As soon as Uther sees her, he knows that he must have her, and says so openly in earshot of her husband.  Needless to say, the truce is broken.

Uther’s army lays siege to the castle and tries to batter down the gate, but to no avail.  And so, Uther makes a pact with Merlin that if he can gain access to the castle and possess Igrayne, whatever issues from his lust will be Merlin’s.  What follows is a great scene in which the beautiful, naked Igrayne is being ravished by Uther in a full suit of armor.  Nine months later, Igrayne gives birth to Arthur, and Merlin shows up to collect.  Uther gives up the baby, but then relents and chases after Merlin to get him back.  However, as Uther is no longer trusted on account of his having betrayed Cornwall, he is ambushed by men intent on killing him and gaining possession of Excalibur.  Mortally wounded, Uther denies them possession of the sword by plunging it into a stone.  Seeing this, Merlin makes the pronouncement that only the future king of England will be able to draw it out.  It is in this way that the movie fuses Excalibur and the sword in the stone into just one sword.

Years later, Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, proving that he is to be king, but many knights have doubts, and another civil war breaks out, in some ways paralleling the first one.  Once again, the man who wields Excalibur wins, the opposing sides are reconciled, and there is a celebration, this time at the castle of Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart).  And once again, there is a woman who dances and who will prove to be a disruptive force, but not quite in the same way.  This time the woman is Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), but at least she is only the daughter of Leondegrance and not his wife, and Arthur does not merely lust after her as Uther did Igrayne, but has fallen in love.  And this time, instead of Uther betraying Cornwall to possess his wife, it is Arthur who will be betrayed by Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), who has an affair with Guenevere.

There have been many movies based on the Arthurian legend, but the only movie that is any good besides Excalibur is Camelot (1967), a movie very different in tone and style.  For one thing, it is a musical; for another, it is lighthearted.  In that movie, Arthur is forced to condemn Guenevere to be burned at the stake for her adultery, but she is saved by Lancelot, and the two of them escape to France, soon followed there by Arthur.  In this, it follows the story as told by Malory and White, but though it is for many a favorite part of the legend, yet it is omitted in Excalibur, perhaps because it would have made the movie too long.  Also, in the basic legend, Mordred is a man at the time when Guenevere is condemned to die, whereas he has not yet been born when Arthur learns of Guenevere’s infidelity in Excalibur.

And this brings us to a simplification that may actually be the elimination of a complication that arose out of a desire to conceal a story that was originally quite simple.  This concerns the above-mentioned character of Mordred (Robert Addie).  In Bulfinch’s Mythology, Mordred is simply referred to as Arthur’s nephew.  However, in the movie Camelot, Mordred is referred to as Arthur’s bastard son.  This movie was based on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which makes it clear that Mordred was both nephew and illegitimate son of Arthur, the result of an incestuous union between Arthur and Morgause, his half-sister.  Presumably, the producers of Camelot wished to avoid the notion of incest and mentioned only that Mordred was Arthur’s bastard son, just as Bulfinch avoided the topic by referring to Mordred only as Arthur’s nephew.  Excalibur returns to the original story and makes it clear that Mordred was both nephew and son of Arthur.

Actually, the story in Le Morte d’Arthur was even more scandalous.  When at one point, Mordred became ruler of England in Arthur’s absence, he forged some letters purporting to tell of Arthur’s death while fighting Lancelot.  He called a parliament and asked them to make him king, intending to cinch the deal by marrying Guenevere.  In other words, Mordred, the bastard son of the incestuous union of Arthur and his sister Morgause, intended to marry Arthur’s wife, who is practically his stepmother.  However, the plan fell through and the marriage never took place.  Speaking of Morgause, another simplification in Excalibur is that Morgana (Helen Mirren), the third and most disruptive woman in this movie, is a composite character consisting of Morgause, her sister Morgan le Fay, and Nimue, a woman whom Merlin fell in love with and to whom he revealed many secrets of necromancy.

Being the offspring of an evil union, Mordred is naturally evil himself, and so much so that merely the fact of his birth causes England to go into decline, beset by famine and pestilence; and Arthur, who is one with the land, also goes into decline, coming close to death.  He sends his knights off to find the Holy Grail, which will restore England to peace and prosperity.  Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) finds the Grail, restoring Arthur to his former strength.  Arthur calls his remaining knights to arms to fight a third civil war against Mordred.  Pretty much everyone dies in the final battle, save for Perceval (taking on the role of Sir Bedivere as another simplification), who returns Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, and Arthur, who is taken away by three queens to the vale of Avalon.

Except for “O Fortuna,” the music for this movie comes from Richard Wagner’s operas.  Excalibur would still be a good movie about King Arthur without Wagner’s music, but it is unthinkable without it, so perfectly matched is the one with the other.  Now, those who regularly attend the opera will probably disagree, being appalled at the way Wagner’s music has been appropriated for this movie.  But the fact is, Wagner’s music has never before been put to such good use.

The Razor’s Edge:  The Book and the Adaptations

There are several differences between The Razor’s Edge, a novel written by W. Somerset Maugham, and the 1946 movie that is based on it.  The novel is told in the first person by Maugham himself, the result being that we are always with Maugham as he goes about doing one thing or another and making observations, while Larry Darrell, the main subject of the book, seems to just come and go; whereas the movie, although it is also narrated by Maugham as a character (played by Herbert Marshall), is free to leave him and stay with Larry (Tyrone Power).  That difference and certain others that need not be mentioned in detail allow for a more dramatic effect, resulting in a movie that is better than its source.

The movie begins with Maugham finding himself at a party for the upper class, where we meet most of the characters who will figure significantly in the rest of the movie.  One in particular is Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), who is exasperated that his niece Isabel (Gene Tierney) is engaged to Larry, because “he hasn’t any money” and “he doesn’t want a job.”  In fact, as we quickly find out, Larry has turned down a job selling bonds, offered to him by Gray (John Payne), who comes from a rich family.  Isabel is perplexed.  When she asks Larry what he wants to do, he answers, “I don’t know.  Loaf, maybe.”  This confirms Elliot’s characterization of him as “bone idle.”

Isabel makes the observation that many of us watching the movie have been thinking about for several minutes running, which is that you can’t live without money.  Larry replies that he has a little, which gives him the opportunity to do what he wants.  As we find out later, he has an income of $3,000 per year, which, adjusted for inflation for the year 2017, is over $44,000.  Now, that’s more income than I ever had, and I had to work for a living.  Nevertheless, that is what Elliott meant by saying that Larry didn’t have any money.

In Larry’s situation, I would not have wanted a job either.  The difference, however, is that whereas I really would have loved to spend my life loafing and being bone idle, Larry is bothered by the fact that during the Great War, a man gave up his life saving him, and he wants to know why, to understand what it all means.  Upon hearing this, Isabel decides to put their engagement on hold.  In part, she does not want to try to live on Larry’s income, but she is also bothered by Larry’s lack of ambition, saying that he should get a job as a matter of “self-respect.”  They agree to wait, and Larry goes to Paris, where he believes he will be better able to see things clearly.

Isabel and her mother come to Paris a year later, and she finds that Larry intends to persist in his existential quest, but he thinks there is no reason why they could not get married anyway.  She has no intention of living the bohemian life that would entail, however, and breaks off the engagement.  Just before she returns to America, Isabel and Larry go out for a very multicultural night on the town, after which she intends to seduce him, get pregnant, and force him to marry her, but she changes her mind.  Elliott, who was wise to her game, asks her why she did not go through with it.  She said she could not bring herself to play such a dirty trick on him, but Elliott says she was just being realistic, knowing the marriage would never have worked.  We all act from mixed motives, and probably her decision not to go through with it was a combination of the two.

Isabel returns to America and eventually marries Gray, which is what Elliott wanted for her all along.  Gray has been quite successful selling bonds, and is now worth $20,000,000.  Also at their wedding is Sophie (Anne Baxter), who has been Larry’s best friend since they were children, and her husband Bob (Frank Latimore).  Sophie and Bob, a couple of modest means, were also at the earlier party with which the movie began.  At that time, she declined a drink when offered, saying that Bob didn’t like her to drink because she was “too fond of it.”  In other words, she is an alcoholic.

The scene shifts back to Europe, where Larry is working as a coal miner.  Now, it was one thing for him to lie around, taking it easy, reflecting on the meaning of life, made possible by his income of $3,000 per year; but if he was going to work anyway, why not get himself a job selling bonds for Gray’s company?  The reason, of course, is the purifying nature of manual labor.  Working with your hands always seems to be more honest and spiritual than working with your mouth or with your mind, which some people regard as having a corruptive influence on the soul.  It’s not for me, you understand.  I once tried manual labor for half a day, and I found nothing honest or spiritual about it.  Give me an indoor job, sitting down, no heavy lifting anytime.  But a lot of people look upon manual labor in that way, and so, apparently, does this movie.

Larry has made friends with Kosti, a nihilistic, defrocked Polish priest, who says that Larry sounds like a religious man who does not believe in God.  Larry says he doesn’t believe in anything.  Kosti suggests that Larry go to India and meet a man that many have found inspirational.  This Larry does, putting himself under the tutelage of the Indian guru.  Whereas Western religions tend to see God as presiding over man and nature, the religious view to which Larry is exposed thinks of God as one with these things.  The holy man tells him, “There is in every one of us a spark of the infinite goodness which created us.  And when we leave this earth, we are reunited with it as a raindrop falling from heaven is at last reunited with the sea which gave it birth.”  The movie reinforces this metaphor connecting God and the sea by beginning and ending with scenes of the ocean, not to mention the references to it throughout the movie.  After studying for a while with the holy man, it becomes time for Larry to ascend to the top of a mountain and live in solitude.  It is there, seeing the sun come up one morning, that he feels himself to be one with God.

Just as manual labor is presented as spiritually preferable to office work, so too is nature presented as more conducive to the experience of revelation than the artificial constructions of civilization.  Maugham, by the way, observes at another point in the movie, that Elliott looks upon “nature as an impediment to social intercourse.”  In any event, having had this revelation, Larry is advised by the holy man that it is time for him to return to his world.

That world, it turns out, has not been doing so well.  First, Sophie survives an automobile accident in which Bob and her baby are killed.  Somewhat later comes the stock market crash of 1929, in which Gray’s firm is wiped out.  In a conversation with Maugham, Isabel notes with irony that she and Gray and their two children are living all right on an income about the same as Larry had when she refused to marry him.  Actually, they are doing better than that.  It seems that Elliott not only got out of the stock market just before the crash, but actually sold short, making a killing.  He has taken a place on the Riviera, where he can hobnob with royalty, while allowing Isabel’s family to live in his posh apartment in Paris.

At least, they are all right financially.  Gray, however, has not only been unable to find work, but has suffered a nervous breakdown as well, afflicting him with terrible headaches.  Just as manual labor and communing with nature on a mountain top has been spiritually uplifting for Larry, the fall from high society and the world of finance has been spiritually ruinous for Gray.

When Kosti told Larry about the holy man, he said it was not so much man’s teachings that affected people, but the man himself.  This recalls what Maugham said at the beginning of the movie, that the man about whom he was writing was not famous and that he may be entirely forgotten after he has died.  That is, there is something about Larry himself that impresses Maugham, not in anything that he has done.  In fact, Larry does remarkably little.

The first thing he does on his return to Paris, where he becomes reacquainted with Gray and Isabel, is to cure Gray’s headache through hypnosis or the power of suggestion, which he learned in India.  This is not farfetched, for Gray’s headaches are clearly psychosomatic.  As Larry puts it, there is nothing miraculous about what he did; he only put an idea in Gray’s head, and Gray did the rest himself.

Gray’s having recovered, they all decide to go out to a nightclub, where Isabel confides to Maugham that she still loves Larry and has never loved anyone else including her husband, though she says she is too fond of Gray to ever hurt him.  After they spend some time at a respectable nightclub, they decide to go slumming and end up at a dive where people dance the tango, of course.  It is in that seedy place that they run into Sophie, who works there.  She has given in to her alcoholic tendencies and is possibly using drugs. And she has a boyfriend that treats her rough, just the way she likes it.

It is only on the way home that Larry finds out about Sophie’s tragedy.  He gets out of the cab and heads back to that nightclub.  Somewhat later, we hear that he has gotten Sophie to quit drinking, and they are going to be married.  Upon receiving that news, Isabel becomes furiously jealous.  She tries to get Maugham to tell Larry not to marry Sophie, saying that Sophie is no good.  “Do you think I’ve sacrificed myself,” she asks, “only to let Larry fall into the hands of a woman like that?”  Isabel claims that she gave Larry up so as not to stand in his way.  Maugham sneers at her characterization of what she did as a sacrifice, saying, “You gave him up for a square-cut diamond and a sable coat.”

Maugham gives the usual reasons for not interfering with Larry’s plans to marry Sophie, essentially that it is none of their business.  But then he goes a step further. “There’s only one thing you can do,” he says.  “Make the best of a bad job.  Larry’s gripped by the most powerful emotion that can beset the breast of man: self-sacrifice. He’s got to save the soul of the wretched woman whom he had known as an innocent child. And there’s nothing you or I or anyone can do to prevent it.”  Isabel’s self-serving talk of her sacrifice stands in stark contrast to the genuine sort that Maugham attributes to Larry.  He advises Isabel to be nice to Sophie, and she seems to agree, but like Maugham, we are suspicious of her motives.

Isabel successfully tempts Sophie into taking a drink, leading her to go back to her old ways.  Larry manages to track her down to an opium den, but she refuses to go with him, running away when a fight breaks out.  No one knows anything about her until a year later, when her body is fished out of the harbor, her throat slit.

As Schopenhauer once noted, a good dramatist like Shakespeare knows to observe the principle that when the villain speaks, he’s right.  Though Isabel is the villain of the piece, having successfully gotten Sophie to start drinking again, yet we can’t help agreeing with her that she only hastened the inevitable, Larry or no Larry.  In the earlier scene, when Maugham tells Isabel that Larry has gotten Sophie to quit drinking, she says, “The fool thinks he’s cured her.”  Maugham notes that Larry cured Gray, but Isabel replies, “Gray wanted to be cured.  She doesn’t.”  When asked how she knows that, she says, “Because I know women. Do you think she’ll stick to Larry? No. She’ll break out. It’s in her blood. It’s a brute she wants. That excites her. It’s a brute she’ll go after. She’ll lead Larry to Hell.”

Notwithstanding Larry’s influence, Sophie told Isabel on that fateful day that it was a desperate struggle for her to not take a drink, especially when Larry was not around.  If she could not be left alone with a bottle of vodka for five minutes without gulping down two full glasses in rapid succession and then heading for an opium den, she was doomed anyway.  We all know how people make an extra effort to please the person they are soon to marry, but then revert to their old ways within months of the nuptials.  Isabel was only making manifest before the wedding what was bound to happen after it.

Anyway, Maugham and Larry make arrangements for Sophie’s funeral, after which Maugham tells Larry that Elliott has had a relapse. Elliott has not gotten on well with Princess Novemali, an American widow who parleyed her fortune for a title by marrying a Roman prince, and who is now a major socialite in France. It seems that Elliott helped spread some rumor about Princess Novemali and her chauffeur, which happened to be true. She is throwing a party to which she has invited everyone of note on the Riviera, except Elliott.  It is going to be the greatest party of the season, and Elliott, though he is on his death bed, yet is devastated that he has not been invited, a deliberate insult, which brings him to tears.  It is the culmination of many such insults, as those who once ate his food and drank his liquor no longer have use for him.  He says he wishes he had never left America.

The priest that gives Elliott the last rites says, correctly, that he was a good man whose faults were on the surface.  Larry, being good friends with Novemali’s secretary, manages to obtain an invitation card and fills it out himself, making it look as though Elliott has been invited to the party after all.  His vanity satisfied, Elliott dies a happy man, after instructing Maugham to send his regrets about not being able to attend.  He leaves his fortune to Isabel, which will allow Gray to get his company out of receivership.

Let us review the deeds of Larry’s life since his return from India.  First, he performed that trick of hypnosis that cured Gray’s headache.  But that means that any psychiatrist skilled in the art of hypnosis might easily have done the same.  Second, taking pity on the woman that was his best friend from childhood, Larry helps her with her alcoholism and decides to marry her.  Marriage is indeed an undertaking not to be entered into lightly, but it is not beyond the pale that you or I in the same situation might do the same for a woman who has been our best friend since childhood.  Finally, given how easily Larry was able to obtain an invitation card and forge it to make a dying man happy, I dare say that most people would not hesitate to do the like as well.

In other words, Larry does not perform miracles, does not become the spiritual leader of a great religious movement, and does not dedicate his life to ministering to the suffering of mankind.  In fact, there is no reason to think that Larry would not have done precisely the same things had he gone to work for Gray selling bonds instead of going to India, save for the fact that he might not have learned that hypnosis trick.  Of course, as Larry reminds us in his final scene with Isabel, recalling what he told her at the beginning of the movie, the really great change in his life came when another man gave up his life saving him, and we never saw what he was like before the war. In any event, Maugham sums up what is special about Larry, saying to Isabel, “My dear, Larry has found what we all want and very few of us ever get. I don’t think anyone can fail to be better and nobler, kinder, for knowing him. You see, my dear, goodness is, after all, the greatest force in the world. And he’s got it.”

Just before the final scene with Isabel, she tells Maugham that she intends to see Larry as much as she wants when they all get back to America, saying, “All my life, I’ve done the things other people have wanted me to do. From now on, I intend to do the things I want to do.”  However, it is too late, and in her final scene with Larry, she realizes she has lost him forever, especially when she realizes that he knows that she was responsible for getting Sophie to start drinking again, which ultimately led to Sophie’s death. This scene was not in the novel, where it is only Maugham, not Larry, who knows the truth about what Isabel did to Sophie.  It is just one of the ways in which the movie is more effective and satisfying than the novel.

In that last scene with Isabel, Larry tells her of his intention of work in a factory or a garage, because while working with his hands, his mind is free and yet he is accomplishing something.  He says he may eventually buy a taxicab, where he can meet lots of people.  Once again, the point is that manual labor is the only occupation suitable for someone of a spiritual nature.  In the last scene, we see Larry working on a tramp steamer on his way back to America, thus combining the ennobling nature of physical work with the spiritual metaphor of the sea.

This version of The Razor’s Edge is about as good as one could want, but it was remade in 1984 anyway.  Some people do not like old movies, especially when they are in black and white, so that may have been the thinking behind the production of this second version.  I noted that in the 1946 version, we never saw what Larry was like before the war, so we could not compare the way he was before someone gave up his life to save his with the way he became afterwards.  But people don’t change that much, and so we figure that Larry was always a nice guy, and only his desire to find the meaning of life is new.  The 1984 version, however, begins as Larry, played by Bill Murray, is about to become an ambulance driver in Europe before America enters the war, but these scenes are not played to good effect.

Instead, the scene in which Larry’s life is saved is perplexing.  Larry says of the man who died saving his life, “He was a slob. Did you ever see him eat? Starving children could fill their bellies on the food that ended up in his beard and on his clothes. Dogs would gather to watch him eat. I’ve never understood gluttony, but I hate it. I hated that about you. He enjoyed disgusting people, being disgusting, the thrill of offending people and making them uncomfortable. It was despicable. You will not be missed.”  Clearly, Murray is being ironic when he says this, but is irony the appropriate attitude for a man that is about to embark on an existential quest to understand the meaning of it all?

Actually, in a way, that irony matches the look on Bill Murray’s face, not only as he portrays Larry both before and after the war, but also matches the look that Murray has on his face in every movie he has ever been in.  Murray’s persona, fully expressed in his face, is that of a man who never takes anything seriously, but has an amused attitude about everything.  He simply is not credible as Larry Darrell.

Another difference between the two versions is that Maugham is not a character in the 1984 version and thus provides no narration.  Because, as mentioned above, Larry never does anything miraculous or spectacular, but rather simply does what any good-hearted fellow might do, we needed Maugham’s commentary to tell us that Larry’s spiritual nature was such as to inspire others to be better human beings.  Without Maugham to guide our appreciation of this aspect of Larry’s personality, we are left pretty much on our own to see what is special about Larry, which given Bill Murray’s face, makes that just about impossible.

Murray cared a lot about this movie and was disappointed when it flopped.  Little did he realize that the spiritual movie that he was perfectly suited for was a comedy, Groundhog Day (1993), which is every bit as much a classic now as the 1946 version of The Razor’s Edge.