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Celebrating “Last of the Mohicans” on Film

By Joseph W. Zarzynski

Friday, April 26, 2013

Last year was the 20th anniversary of the USA release of the 20th Century Fox production, “The Last of the Mohicans.” That blockbuster movie, released on September 25, 1992, starred London-born actor, Daniel Day-Lewis. Just over two years earlier he won his first Best Actor Oscar award for the 1989 movie, “My Left Foot.”

As the 20th anniversary of the most recent motion picture version of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel approaches, it is appropriate to acknowledge another film anniversary associated with this historical fiction account based upon the 1757 fall of Fort William Henry.

Several months ago, November 10, 2011, marked the 100th anniversary of the official release of the original “The Last of the Mohicans” motion picture. That black-and-white silent film was only “one reel” or “1,000 feet” of film in length. For a silent film that equaled a little over 11 minutes in duration. Early in the silent film era, motion pictures were classified by the number of film reels or the number of feet of film stock.

The October 21, 1911 issue of the weekly entertainment publication, The Billboard, had an article on the 1911 edition of “The Last of the Mohicans” movie. One of the actors in “The Last of the Mohicans” (1911) was James Cruze who played Uncas, the Mohican son of Chingachgook. Cruze, born in Utah, was described as being of Ute Native American ancestry. He would go on to have an impressive acting and directing career being in over one hundred movies, making him one of the film industry’s early stars.

The Billboard article also promised the motion picture would “be remarkable for its scenic beauty and fidelity to the novel.” The news account likewise described the production’s film location: “The whole cast worked in and around the Adirondacks and the lakes for a whole month.”

James Fenimore Cooper, a Cooperstown resident, had his book published in 1826. A year earlier, he visited the Lake George/Glens Falls area where he conducted research. Cooper then wrote his novel, set during the French & Indian War (1755-1763), over a 3-4 month time period while vacationing with family on Long Island’s north shore.

As the 20th anniversary of director Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) movie approaches, we should recognize the long lineage of earlier films of that title. The 1920 motion picture program of “The Last of the Mohicans,” a silent film that starred Wallace Beery, is considered to be the best film adaptation of Cooper’s popular novel. In 1995, the Library of Congress, listed the 1920 movie onto the National Film Registry, the official list for noteworthy American motion pictures that are ”culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.” This preservation program began in 1989 and each year up to twenty-five films are added to this roster.

Other American-made movie versions of “The Last of the Mohicans” came out in 1932, 1936, and 1963. There was even a 1977 made-for-television “movie” that starred Steve Forrest as Hawkeye.

This year, celebrate the 20th anniversary of “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) by watching it on DVD or via download. However, during that nostalgic screening, also give a nod to the movie’s rich film ancestry.

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