Independent Historical Production

Make Your Movie Now

Filmmaking Stuff - How To Make, Market and Sell Your Movie

Get Instant Access

Hollywood filmmakers had the potential to represent the historiographi-cal and racial complexities of Cooper's American history without sacrificing the drama or what screenwriter John Balderston perceived as its qualities as a historical epic. Cimarron alluded to Yancey's mixed status in several key scenes. Early in the narrative, Isaiah, a young black boy who stowed away with the Cravats en route to Oklahoma, copies Yancey's outfit and comes to church dressed as a pint-sized version of his hero. Yancey laughs when he sees his youthful mirror image, but Sabra, schooled in the South, does not find the implications of this "cimarron" mixing amusing. By foregrounding Cora's mixed ancestry, the filmmakers had the opportunity to do something similar. Yet Balderston considered the Native American aspects of the narrative a "subplot," thereby distancing Edward Small's film from two large-scale silent versions made by D. W. Griffith (Biograph) in 1909 and Maurice Tourneur and Clarence Brown (Associated Producers/Universal) in 1920 that had concentrated on the poignant interracial love story of Cora (who is of West Indian extraction) and Uncas. Balderston wanted his film to be an "epic." To achieve this, the new film had to avoid racial ambiguity and focus on "serious" history, the massacre, and "the Anglo-American victory which determines the fu ture of the continent for all time."38 He was so taken with the theme of British-American union that he planned to add his own historical coda to the Mohicans script.39 He envisioned the end of the film culminating in Wolfe's rout of Montcalm's French forces on the Plains of Abraham. Although he planned to retain the Native American characters and Magua's abduction of the Munro girls, these sequences would be subservient to the "serious" historical episodes, the documented history that would earn the film epic prestige.

Balderston had aimed his screen treatment at independent producer Edward Small, who hoped that a successful film would keep his Reliance Studios in business. In 1935 Small decided that Balderston's vision of American historical epics would be the surest way for him to garner financial stability and critical praise, so he hired Balderston. The screenwriter was conscious of his role as a historian and began his treatment with a suitably impressive text foreword. It was three paragraphs, and therefore three shots, long, recounting the court intrigue and jealousies between France and England, the perspicacity of Prime Minister William Pitt, and his vision for the North American continent.40 Balderston's ensuing narrative concentrated overwhelmingly on the first half of Cooper's novel, which dramatizes and comments on the actual events of the war and massacre at Fort William Henry. Hawkeye is still Cooper's Anglophobic, colonial huntsman, but Balderston has him admit the error of his ways at the end of the film: Hawkeye joins the British army as a legitimate soldier. In many of the early versions of the script, Hawkeye actually helps Wolfe find a way up the cliffs of Quebec and defeat the French forces.41

Screenwriter Philip Dunne read Balderston's material at Small's request and soon wrote his own version, but he still emphasized the novel's historical context. Dunne also maintained a pompous three-paragraph foreword that focused on the European political forces controlling the war, and he even opened his version with a superimposed date, 1757. With the assistance of a script polisher, the text foreword had been cut to only one paragraph by October. Still, the filmmakers continued to cling to The Last of the Mohicans as a legitimate historical epic, and well into 1936, they projected a text foreword that would set the stage for 1757. Balderston's dream of concluding his French and Indian War epic on the Plains of Abraham foundered, however, when Small's company deleted it from the script in June 1936.42 It is likely that they abandoned this historical coda only because of the prohibitive cost of staging yet another "epic" battle. Nevertheless, Mohicans remains a tribute to the British or-

Text foreword for The Last of the Mohicans (1936).

deal and triumph in North America and the colonials' union with the mother country. Hawkeye's reconciliation with the British cause and his decision to join the army in the final sequences of the film overshadow any potential consideration of the Native American perspective. Whereas the structure of Cooper's historical novel argues for a juxtaposition of the European and Indian worlds and their ways of recording the past, Small's production concentrates almost exclusively on the institutional history of the French and Indian War. Whereas Cimarron's text inserts were set to work in counterpoint to the complex social history of an evolving Oklahoma, Mohicans's text foreword establishes a European historical struggle that it then resolves through the cinematic narrative. The images support the text.

Small based his film's historical quality on the accuracy of the sets, costumes, and language. To this end, he hired independent researcher E. P. Lambert in the fall of 1935 to research the period of the French and Indian War, to correct any errors in the script, and to produce a dossier of pictures and excerpts of primary texts for the set designers. Lambert had provided a similar service for Darryl F. Zanuck in preparation for Cardinal Richelieu (1935), but while working at Fox, he had access to the studio's expanding research library, under the direction of Frances Richardson, as well as the Los Angeles and Huntington Libraries. Reliance Studios lacked the impressive resources of the major studios, but at the time, it was standard practice for studios to share their research facilities and finds with other screenwriters and production staffs.43 This may have been the

Twentieth Century-Fox research library, ca. 1939.

only area where Warner Brothers and Paramount would cooperate rather than compete with each other.

Lambert's research log and bibliography constituted a second crucial process in the construction of American historical cinema. The first involved the screenwriter's personal research for the treatment and script, undertaken either in the studio's own research library or at the Los Angeles Public Library or the Huntington Library in nearby San Marino. Lambert remained on Small's payroll throughout the production, but his attitude toward historical research was curious. He wrote to Small in October 1935, "Film fans do not mind a little margin for history to work loosely in when it is part of a story, especially as in good histories there are conflicting accounts of the same occurrence. The producer has the same right as a painter to make history picturesque and events occur in the order they should have happened for best dramatic effect . . . we must not be too considerate of inconvenient truth when dramatizing history."44 Lambert knew from his research that history was often conflicted and incomplete. To him, cinema was entertainment, and few members of the audience were likely to recognize departures from the historical record.

Yet his comments emphasize the paradox of American historical filmmaking. If the facts themselves were often obscure, and historians were unreliable, how could filmmakers resist the lure of their own dramatic alterations? In making historical films, screenwriters used the same tools as historians, often covering the same ground. Somewhere along this path,

Twentieth Century-Fox research library, ca. 1939.

they were confronted by conflicting loyalties. Before the advent of sound, few writers or studio producers worried about these discrepancies and the construction of history, but now, screenwriters often devoted as much time to preparation and research as they did to writing. Studio libraries and research departments began to grow, and by the latter half of the 1930s, studios were advertising their research libraries in periodicals such as the Library Journal and the Wilson Bulletin for Librarians.45 Critical attention focused on a film's accurate "look," but it was equally sensitive to a film's projected attitude toward history and its use of historical events. Although Small's researcher may have questioned the need for and advisability of historical accuracy, his misgivings were not necessarily shared by the principal filmmakers. The fact remains that Small wanted to make a successful American historical epic. To do so, his screenwriters focused on the documented historical events in Cooper's novel and developed a historical foreword with which to contextualize their film, while Small hired a full-time research assistant to document visual detail. Yet in focusing on the historically verifiable elements of the story—namely, the Anglo-American struggle against the French and Indians—Small avoided what Cimarron chose to do in 1931: present multiple perspectives on America's multiracial past and engage the rhetoric of its founding myths of national history.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment