Over the weekend I watched the director’s cut of one of my old favourites; ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ (1992). (Who doesn’t love Daniel Day Lewis?!) However historically accurate in setting, costume and dialogue, Michael Mann’s film is actually very different to the novel upon which it is based… [Spoilers ahead]
In the film, the brave, intelligent and charismatic Cora Munro falls in love with the scout Hawk-eye (also known as Nathaniel), much to the disappointment of Major Duncan Hayward, who wanted her for his wife. Her meek, juvenile sister Alice has a largely off-screen, never fully realised romantic relationship with the Native American Indian Uncas, who ultimately loses his life trying to save her from the villainous Magua. After Uncas’ death, and fearing life as Magua’s wife, Alice takes her own life.
In James Fenimore Cooper’s novel of the same name, first published in 1826, it is Alice who is desired by Duncan – and even ends up marrying him – while Cora is doomed to the tragic love affair with Uncas instead. And poor Day Lewis’ Hawk-eye enjoys no romance whatsoever. Cora’s changing fate is the result of changing attitudes towards women between the time the novel was set (1757) and written (1826), and the time the film was made (1992).
In the original novel, the raven-haired Cora Munro is the daughter of a British colonel and a woman descended from West Indian slaves – meaning she is mixed race, a less than ideal quality for a woman in the mid eighteenth century. Though interracial relations were by no means uncommon during this time, these pairings were widely felt to be a threat to the stability and purity of society. Cora’s tragedy flows in her veins; her blood prevents her from ever being desirable in marriage. Instead, she is desirable – and, worse still, desires – all the ‘wrong’ sorts of men – men of other races, such as the wicked Huron Magua and the brave Mohican Uncas. For Cooper and his peers, this was an even more dangerous quality for Cora to possess: female sexuality. In a society built in part on the repression and control of this female flaw, Cora’s romantic relationship with Uncas is doomed from the start. Rather than let them be together and potentially challenge both his characters’ and his own stable, patriarchal American society, Cooper condemns the pair to die.
As well as being cursed by the ‘wrong’ heritage, Cora also has the ‘wrong’ character: she is brave, stoic and strong-willed, where her fairer half-sister Alice is weak, innocent and mild. Though Cooper secretly seems to admire Cora’s personality and ridicule Alice’s, he is very aware that the society he is depicting was even more patriarchal than his own; a society that prioritised men and marginalised women. In this world, women were fragile prizes to be protected at all costs – even Hawk-eye offers to give up his beloved rifle to ensure Cora’s safety (and remember in this version of the story he isn’t even hoping to get lucky). As we have seen throughout history, it is in the safe-guarding of women that men measure their masculinity and their heroism – even at the time Cooper was writing, this was still very much the case. The fact that Cora consistently transgresses gender boundaries by acting rationally and bravely in the face of danger (rather than begging for male protection), means that she is a threat to this entrenched idea of masculinity. It’s not really surprising then that the boring, infantile Alice is the girl of Duncan’s dreams, not Cora.
And that is precisely why the story is reversed in Mann’s film. Fast forward to the late twentieth century, and you find that (whether you love or hate the word), the progress made by the feminist movement has cultivated an audience that wants a heroine like Cora – a woman who is brave, clever and charismatic – not a helpless drip like Alice. Cora’s strength allows her to survive and play out her romance with Hawk-eye, while Alice’s weakness causes her to suffer – ultimately choosing to die rather than fight back. As for Cora’s heritage, that is removed from the story entirely (no doubt to simplify things), although it does beg the question why it is with the white Hawk-eye, adopted by the Mohicans, that Cora lives happily ever after, and not the fully Native American Indian Uncas…