If there’s one film Maurice Tourneur is still widely known for, it’s this adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel. The irony, of course, is that Tourneur fell ill two weeks into the shoot, and Clarence Brown directed the rest, although under Tourneur’s instruction. “Tourneur saw all the rushes,” Brown said years later. “He could be very blunt. The first raspberry I ever heard came from Maurice Tourneur — and when I heard it, I knew it meant a retake.”
For all it’s many virtues, it may be my least favorite of the Tourneur films I’ve seen. Some of it is the fault of the source story, which is full of condescending noble savage tripe concerning the Indian characters that hasn’t aged well. It’s also saddled with a famously awful performance by Barbara Bedford as Cora Munro. Josef von Sternberg allegedly directed Marlene Dietrich by saying things like, “Look at the lamp and count to ten.” Bedford looks to be doing something similar, except that when she counts to ten, instead of looking mysterious she looks vacuous.
The 72 minute movie also seems to fall back one time too many on the evil Magua (Wallace Beery) threatening to haul Cora’s blonde sister off to a fate worse than death, only to have Cora offer herself up in her sister’s place. (I count three instances of this.)
That said, it is, like Victory, an utter corker as an action film, and it’s just as visually amazing as any other Tourneur film. (Clarence Brown went on to make many visually beautiful films himself, including several starring Greta Garbo.) After taking twenty minutes to set up the situation, the film becomes a long, gripping chase sequence with intermittent bouts of cracking action. It must also be said that, unlike Victory, Tourneur didn’t dodge the tragic ending of the source novel. The ending may well be why this film is remembered. It’s still jolting 90 years later.
The fight scenes are pretty brutal. Some of the hand-to-hand fighting resembles Anthony Mann at his eye-gouging best.
Because the Indian characters are sometimes depicted as caricatures, some of the most brutal scenes also have a cartoonish feel.
Tourneur was an artist. He had been a painter, and although he did little painting while he was making pictures, he painted on the screen. Many of the tricks they use in the picture business today were originated by Tourneur, with his cameraman, John van der Broek. He was a great believer in dark foregrounds. No matter where he set his camera up, he would always have a foreground. On exteriors, we used to carry branches and twigs around with us. If it was an interior, he always had a piece of the set cutting into the corner of the picture, in halftone, to give him depth. Whenever we saw a painting with an interesting lighting effect, we’d copy it. We had a library of pictures. “Rembrandt couldn’t be wrong,” we’d say, and we’d set the shot up and light it like Rembrandt. At least we stole from the best. (Clarence Brown quoted in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By…)
Fans of Tourneur’s son Jacques may spot some echoes of this film in a couple of his. The massacre by the Indians is reminiscent of the one in Canyon Passage (1946), although Jacques’ depiction of the Indians is far less of a caricature. And the visually-dramatic finale, shot on location in Yosemite, brings to mind the scenes in the High Sierras from Out of the Past (1947).
In the end, although the occasional goofiness of the depiction of the Indians undermines the tragic tone of the story, the final image really does nail the elegiac mood, which is appropriate to the title.