by Paige Lurie
When a film’s title is a lie, our expectation of historic accuracy is low. While seeing heroes be the last of their kind is a romantic notion, it is not based in fact. Modern day estimates have at least 1,500 Mohicans are alive and enrolled today, albit living far from their Hudson Valley origins (Hale-Spencer, 2018). Our expectations of historic accuracy are not raised when we learn the major characters are a creation of not history, but a 1826 novel. The adopted white Mohican Hawkeye is fiction, the vengeful Magua leading the siege is fiction, the spotlighted romance is a fiction. (Fictitious romance is a theme for Lights, Camra, History already) When we start with so little grounds of truth, what is there to look at? The answer is – a very narrow view.
It is possible to look into the portrayal of the Native Americans. The accuracy is unquestionably minimal. The film did allow Indigenous actors in some of the roles and hinted at the romantic possibilities for those characters, but did now advance personhood much further for the characters. This stems straight from the book’s writing when “ideas about Native American culture durning [book author James Fenimore] Cooper’s time were dominated by savagery “ (Rosenwald, 1998).. The perspectives remain limited to the classic stereotypes of the “noble savage” in Chingachgook and Uncas who rescued an orphaned white child and save the white female leads, and the “blood-thirsty savage” in Mague who sends the full film discussing his desire to rip the heart out of a British officer, and follows through. While Wesley Studs sought to create a nuanced character driven by the officer’s cruel actions and filled with an intelligence crafted revenge, the idea of good and bad Indian is still clear in its intention (Rinne, 1992). Further the creation of Day-Lewis’s character as a white man raised to be Indian only to fall in love with an elite white woman evokes the concept that nature surpasses nurture in the end. He is never fully portrayed as equivalent to his adopted family – the constant spoken reminder that he is a white man with a white family is never ending. Further the act of both Hawkeye and Uncas being sent to an English school creates the bridge to acceptance. The film is often praised amongst Native American groups when it came out – including the actors themselves, for trying to break the dichotomy of savagery, but in my opinion it falls flat. The goodness in the part of the Mochicans is only seen in what they do for the whites – Hawkeye, Cora, and Alice – rather than their inherent self worth. Additionally, if the film were told from the perspective of Mague he would be seen as a Liam Nison type revenge hero rather than a villain who’s blood thirst is oversized to his anger. It is a disservice to history – but not a surprise – that the Native characters were regulated to troupes. Despite being the titular roles, they are simply a backdrop for white romance.
The other possibility is to look at the historic claims of the Siege of Fort William Henry. While very much the background of the movie – relegated to a C-plot after a love story and a tale of survival – it is the most historical part of the film. The French Montcalm and British Monro were real generals that came face to face in this battle. In real life Monro did not have daughters and a different first name – but the essence of truth remains. Monro was accurately portrayed as a weektrategist, leading the American’s ultimate failure to protect their fort (Jarret, 1960). In a memorable moment in the film, Monro surrenders with a dramatic flourish when he realizes no reinforcements were coming – a dramatization of the truth. While history remains unclear if the attack from the French-allied Native Ameircans was due to a miscommunication or a purposeful surprise attack – the film paints the story of a purposefully vengeance of Mague. While the personal and bloody killing of Monro was a brutal moment in the film, the real Monro survived the siege and died a month later. Nonetheless, the siege itself remains the most accurate part of the story.
In full, I would say this film never claimed to have much history. The background gave an essence of truth to tell a love story. The Last of the Mochicans was more interested in evoking emotions and creating suspense than teaching history – and in that it succeeded.
Galbraith, Jane. “Facts Of The ‘Mohicans’ : A Historian Is Impressed By The Details In The Movie But Sees Inaccuracies In The Depiction Of Frontier Life”. Los Angeles Times, 1992, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-10-10-ca-753-story.html. Accessed 21 Dec 2020.
Hale-Spencer, Melissa. “Mohicans, Forced From Their Ancestral Lands, Still Connect To Their Heritage Here”. The Altamont Enterprise, 2018, https://altamontenterprise.com/09272018/mohicans-forced-their-ancestral-lands-still-connect-their-heritage-here.
JARRETT, HENRY T. “Battle of Fort William Henry, 1757.” The Military Engineer, vol. 52, no. 349, 1960, pp. 385–388. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44607037. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.
Rinne, Craig. “White Romance and American Indian Action in Hollywood’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992).” Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 13, no. 1, 2001, pp. 3–22. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20736998. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.
Rosenwald, Lawrence. “The Last of the Mohicans and the Languages of America.” College English, vol. 60, no. 1, 1998, pp. 9–30. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/378471. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.