Today is the birthday of the great American author James Fenimore Cooper (1759-1851). I am one of the few Americans whose pilgrimage to Cooperstown was completely unconcerned with baseball, and was entirely interested in the Fenimore Art Museum, built on the site of Cooper’s old farm house. (Cooperstown is named after James Fenimore Cooper’s father, the town’s founder).
As my readers know I am a fanatic for 19th century American literature. While Cooper is a writer I regard of historical importance, in terms of artistic esteem I would have place him pretty low on my short list, well below favorites like Irving, Poe, Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain and Whitman. These days nearly of all of Cooper’s novels and non-fiction writings have been forgotten but for the five books that comprise his cycle of Leatherstocking Tales starring protoypical frontier hero Natty Bumpo, a.k.a “Hawkeye”: The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Path Finder (1840) and The Deer Slayer (1841). These books are crucial landmarks in American literary history, with their uniquely native themes and subjects, especially the depiction of frontier life and the interactions of whites with Native Americans. In some respects Cooper can be considered the Father of the American Western, a not inconsiderable province in the national imagination. He was and is considered American’s answer to Sir Walter Scott, and he shares along with Scott’s virtues (tales of adventure and romance, often set in the past), his defects: a woefully turgid and dense style, so overwrought as to be, quite frankly, dull. And I am someone who happens to LOVE the ornate filigrees of 19th century writing. It is not literary ornament per se that I have a problem with. It is the fact that Cooper (unlike, say Poe or Hawthorne) uses the words to no effect. Everything in art must have a purpose. In Cooper’s writing, the words get in the way.
But that’s okay — that’s what Hollywood is for. Not that I would ever tell someone that they shouldn’t read The Last of the Mohicans but…this is one of those rare times when I would confide to someone that they would much more enjoy the movie — any movie — version. And there have been many! Let’s take a look:
1911: The screen’s first cinematic adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans was a one reel silent film produced by the Thanhouser Film Coporation and starring James Cruze, who later became a director and producer in addition to an actor, most famous for his landmark 1923 Western The Covered Wagon.
1920: This version, produced and directed by Maurice Tourneur, features Wallace Beery in the role of Magua.
That same year (1920) there was a German version Der Letzte der Mohikaner starring Bela Lugosi as Chingachgook!
1932: Mascot Pictures released a serial version starring Western star Harry Carey.
1936: Another minor studio, Reliance Pictures released a version starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye and Bruce Cabot as Magua.
1957. A Canadian television production starred Lon Chaney Jr. as Chingachgook (Creighton was often unfortunately cast as an Indian in his post Universal horror days).
1965: The inevitable Spaghetti Western version starring starring Jack Taylor. Jose Marco, Luis Induni and Daniel Martin.
1971: The equally inevitable BBC mini-series version, starring Kenneth Ives, Richard Warwick, and Philip Madoc. Some consider it the best of all the versions; its acting in particular was highly praised.
1977: An NBC television movie version starred Steve Forrest, Ned Romero and Don Shanks.
1992. And course the best known version today, starring the never-less-than stellar Daniel Day-Lewis, as well as real life Native American (and well-known activist) Russell Means, and Madeline Stowe, Lewis famously went native to prepare for this role, essentially becoming Natty Bumpo, living off the land in primitive conditions for months at a time. To this day, I’m certain if you plopped him down in the middle of the Amazon, he’d have no problem walking the thousand miles to the nearest village, probably having gained a few pounds and a cool looking fur jacket along the way. Madness and genius often go hand in hand!