I have found three movies that picture the tense coexistence of the highly developed Iroquois League of Upstate New York and the European settlers bearing the standard of Civilization. Two of these movies are based on American novels, set in the colonial years of the 18th century (see below).
The most notable novelist and mythmaker for this time in American history was James Fenimore Cooper 1789-1851. Looking back, I have realized that the probable reason I passed over Fenimore Cooper in my youthful efforts to read a little bit of everything in American literature, was that I was under the spell of Mark Twain, whose works were more familiar to me. Twain had written a brief essay entitled The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper. It was apparently intended as parody but I was too young to appreciate the subtle satire and took it at face value. If Twain felt that Cooper was not worth reading, it was good enough for me.
Though Cooper wrote extensively on sailing ships and contemporary politics, his literary reputation rests primarily on his Leatherstocking Tales (1827-41). This series of five romantic novels is set in a territory the author knew best, in and around the Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York. Once it was the ancestral home of the Iroquois League, or Six Nations. Fenimore Cooper owned a home there in his later years and knew the place very well. Here are quick reports on the three movies I have found on the Iroquois lands where I live and write this website.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
This film made a very poor impression on me when it first appeared and I resolved to one day give it a second look. In August 2012, it was shown on AMC along with print commentaries on its historical accuracy (spotty), fidelity to the novel by James Fenimore Cooper (cavalier), and the careers of the filmmakers and stars (irrelevant). There have been many film adaptations of the novel; this one was more inspired by the 1936 movie with Randolph Scott than it was by the original material. Roger Ebert calls the Cooper work “all but unreadable.” With low expectations for this second viewing, I was initially impressed with the sumptuous filming and the attention to detail in the settings and costumes. Though the story is set in Upstate New York, above Albany, the filming was done in North Carolina. Some 900 American Indians were hired to lend authenticity to the battle scenes and vignettes of Woodland Indian life.
The time is 1757, less than 20 years before American independence from Britain. The French and Indian War is under way. The name of this war is confusing for students as this is a territorial conflict between the French and the British, each of whom had enlisted Indian allies.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Nathaniel/Hawkeye (Natty Bumppo in the book), a white man who was adopted by the “Mohican” people (the invented name of this dying tribe is an amalgamation of two Northeastern groups, Mohawk and Mohegan). In the movie, the boy was adopted by Chingachgook, who will at the end of the movie be the last of his tribe. Hawkeye speaks excellent English though he still lives with his adoptive people, who are being actively pressured to join the British war effort.
Though the central historical event is the British defense of Fort William Henry against the French, a conflict that has deep roots in the histories of both nations, the spotlight here is on an invented tale of vengeance among the Indian tribes that have been drawn into this war. Hawkeye, for his part, has been sucked into this maelstrom of violence out of his love for the daughter of Colonel Munro, the British commander at the fort. Tourists at the reconstructed site are provided with literature that emphasizes the inaccuracy in the book, and therefore the movie.
It would take more time then I can offer to sort fact from fiction in this movie, but it can be clearly stated that the ending puts Hawkeye at the center of the Indian drama while the European forces fade to the background. The history books tell a very different story of the French victory over the British at Fort William Henry and the terrible massacre of captive British soldiers by the Indians.
The book, true to its time, is more complex and laced with themes of racism. The movie scrambles the characters in support of its love story. This is Hollywood, and Daniel Day-Lewis gets the girl. Admittedly, it is a better film than I thought at first, but the heavy-handed manipulations of the story were alienating for me. I was struck by the resemblance to the Tarzan movies adapted from novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Both feature a neutral hero as a bridge between two opposing cultures, and neither side is glorified.
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) – John Ford
Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert star in this dramatization of the well-known novel of Upstate New York by Walter D. Edmonds. This was the first Technicolor movie made by John Ford. In the time of the Revolutionary War, the story opens with the Albany wedding of Fonda and Colbert followed immediately by their covered wagon ride to their farm at Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley. The rustic cabin requires some getting used to for Colbert. When Fonda’s Indian friend enters the cabin, she descends into a screaming fit and then demands to be taken back to Albany. Fonda must be stern with her. The visitor was played by a real Indian, though he looks more like a cigar store figure. They settle into the agrarian life. In town, the locals are mobilizing to join the war effort. Fonda is among them. The Indians attack their homestead and they must escape in a cart. The Indians do a lot of ridiculous jumping and hooting.
The settlers gather for safety at the nearby fort, where Colbert suffers a miscarriage. Homeless, the Fondas take a job helping on the farm of a long-faced widow (Edna May Oliver). The war heats up and Fonda must march off with the local militia. When the soldiers return, Fonda is not with them. Colbert is told he is dead but she runs down the rainy road and finds him leaning against a fence. She nurses him as he narrates the whole progress of the battle. The Indians have been beaten. Things get back to normal and Colbert gives birth to a boy who grows up to be a fine little fellow. Later, two drunken Indians break in on the horse-faced woman and set her house on fire. They are hopping and hooting. It is the beginning of a full Indian uprising. There is a fierce battle. The long-faced woman takes an arrow and dies in the arms of the Fondas. Things get desperate and Fonda must make a heroic dash to the fort for help. When he returns, he thinks his wife is dead, but he finds her leaning against a wall. All is well at last, and the people go about rebuilding their lives. News comes that Cornwallis has surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. The Stars & Stripes are raised over the fort as “God Bless America” swells on the soundtrack.
This movie is good and bad in equal measure. It opens with some pretty pictures of a wagon train making its way across the meadows of the Mohawk Valley. In one of the Conestoga wagons, the driver explains the Six Nations of the Iroquois to an older woman and a younger woman. He says that in this region there are the friendly Mohawks and the warlike Tuscarora. The women are bound for a fort in the valley to surprise the younger one‘s fiancé. It is ill advised. He is an artist and is having an affair with his model who is the daughter of the tavern keeper at the fort. He quickly makes the women welcome, however, and explains that it is only a professional relationship. Along their way, the women have observed Indians standing in the trees looking less than glad to see them.
Their fears are confirmed soon after their arrival when there is an Indian attack on the fort. This was preceded by the visit to the Mohawk village by a white man who wants to encourage the attack. He has his own reasons for wanting to drive the settlers out of the valley. An attractive Indian princess (Rita Gam) is part of the attack party. She wears a sleek jumpsuit the color of buckskin. By chance, she meets the artist as she attempts to guide the warriors through a secret tunnel into the fort. The two fall in love and the artist is now trying to keep three women happy. The princess brings him to her village to meet her father, the chief. The artist is forced to fight a warrior but wins easily. He now becomes a kind of peace ambassador to the Indians and has little desire to return to the fort. When the traitor from the fort shoots the son of the chief, war breaks out and the artist must join the defenses and shoot as many Indians as possible. After the treachery is exposed, peace is restored. The artist bids farewell to his two paramours at the fort and returns to the village with his princess. It’s a silly charade with some rudimentary acting, but the background is very satisfying. All of the Indian roles are played by white actors. The interracial love story is submerged in the warfare on the early frontier.
Connecticut: The Mashantucket Pequot Museum
Sometime in the early 1990s, on a visit to family in Connecticut, we made a trip out to the Foxwoods Resort Casino to see what was going on. Located in the small town of Mashantucket, this property was owned and developed by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. It had been in the news over recent years claiming to be “the largest resort casino in North America,” and “one of Connecticut’s highest state tax payers and largest employers.” This was an amazing achievement for a little-known and barely surviving Indian reservation in a remote corner of the northeastern U.S. The success of this venture clearly had much to do with its proximity to the population centers around Boston to the north; Providence, Rhode Island to the east; and a unique mix of traditional affluence and Rust Belt decay in Connecticut to the west.
It was a study in the contrasts of American life to visit the many attractions on this woodsy compound. There were two casino wings, one for smokers and one for non-smokers. It got surreal, however, when we walked down a trail to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, which claimed to be “the world’s largest Native American museum.” This would have been about a decade before the opening of the Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC – see Mounds & Plains. The state-of-the-art museum, funded by profits from the casino, offered visitors from Boston, Providence, and New Haven an opportunity to experience the simulated realities of life before and after the coming of the European colonists. The museum design enticed visitors to follow a walkway that spiraled down into the lower levels of the building. There were dioramas and exhibits depicting life in a Pequot village in the years before the Europeans arrived. Emphatic signs then directed us into a darkened theater where a movie called The Witness would begin momentarily. It was a dramatic and well produced film, lasting 30 minutes, detailing the massacre of some 600 Pequot people by European colonists who had come to settle this area, and whose descendants would one day come to squander their excess wealth in the Foxwoods Casino. The museum had found a way to lure them into a labyrinth and rub their noses in an unsavory episode in their history. I’m not sure if I was the only one chuckling under my breath, but I thought the ironies were delicious.