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First of the Tonto Tales

Some thoughts on the movie The Last of the Mohicans:

One of the aspects of The Last of the Mohicans that I found to be particularly well done is the handling of the different Native American tribes. The film realistically depicts the natives as distinct tribes, each with its own agenda, who dealt with the invading Europeans in various ways, from warfare to trade to alliance, and who fought against each other as much as against the French or English. The native characters in the film are handled with dignity and realism, particularly with respect to their language. The characters are all represented on film as speaking the language that they would have spoken in those circumstances in reality; subtitles are provided when the viewer needs to know what's being said. One scene that I felt was particularly well-done in this respect involves a three-way translation between characters who speak Huron, English, and French. Mann's skillful direction ensures that the viewer follows the conversation completely, while also preserving the nuances of each speaker in his own language, and at the same time conveying the tension between these representatives of hostile groups.

Comment:  This is true.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the book Last of the Mohicans is that it perpetuates the idea of good Indians vs. bad Indians. Or, since the book is one of the first to deal with Indians in fiction, let's say it precipitates the idea. Chingachgook and Uncas are the epitome of the noble savage, while Magua is the epitome of the base and ignoble savage.

In the movie version, Chingachgook and Uncas don't have much to say or do. They're sidekicks to Natty "Hawkeye" Bumppo. Except for one or two pearls of wisdom, they act like stoic, wooden Indians.

Only the Huron leader seems to have deep thoughts. After listening to Hawkeye and Magua debate, he comes to a nuanced decision. Hawkeye will go free, Magua will take Alice Munro captive, and the Hurons will burn Cora Munro alive to make up for her father's depredations. (It may not be a pleasant decision, but at least it has three distinct parts.)

The film's portrayal of Magua is both better and worse than the book's. Better, because it gives him a motive: he's seeking revenge after Anglos killed his family. Worse, because he cuts out Colonel Munro's heart while he's still alive. (Thank God he didn't start eating it, as he promised to do.)

I don't know how Huron Indians looked, but the movie repeats a common cliché. Whether it's Dances with Wolves, Shanghai Noon, or Last of the Mohicans, "bad" Indians seem to have at most one lock of hair. If you see a movie Indian with a shaved head, beware. He's almost certainly an evildoer.

Essentially, this is an action-adventure movie with an overlay of romance and history. It wouldn't be difficult to make it into a standard Western, with Hawkeye as the Lone Ranger and Chingachgook as Tonto. It's well-done but not particularly compelling, especially if you know who dies at the end.

Rob's rating:  7.5 of 10.

If you're interested, you can buy Last of the Mohicans through Blue Corn Comics in our online store. See also the other Native-themed movies I've recommended there.

More on The Last of the Mohicans

Related links
Tonto and the "good Indian"
The best Indian movies

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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