"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Roughing It by Mark Twain

A record of several years of variegated vagabondizing

Written 1870 – 71 and covering Twain’s travels from 1861 – 66, Roughing It was a sort of ‘Innocents At Home’. For anyone interested in the West, fact or fiction, it is a rootin’, tootin’ delight.

When a book is written in the early 1870s and tells of the decade before, it’s about as authentic on the West as you are going to get. The language is of the time, not a modern author’s approximation of it. How they traveled, what things cost, what people wore, what they ate, what they read and what they said are all straight from the stagecoach horse’s mouth. It was the vernacular American experience - at which Mark Twain excelled.
"It is suited to the wants of the old, the young, the rich, the poor, the sad and the gay." Well, that covers most of us, I guess.
In 1861, Samuel Clemens’s brother Orion was appointed secretary to James W Nye, Governor of Nevada Territory, and Sam, 25, accompanied him as the secretary’s secretary. From St Joseph, in those pre-transcontinental railroad days, they took a stage West.
Sam Clemens as the young printer's apprentice
The stage journey is, for me, certainly the best part of Roughing It. I like the later part about silver mining and the time in California is OK. I was less keen on the later chapters about his time in the Sandwich Islands, as Hawaii was then called. But the journey across country is amusingly told in the first twenty chapters and gives a real flavor of the West.
There's an excellent map of their route:
I was interested in the times taken by the various forms of transport moving West. Twain tells us with enthusiasm (his italics and capitals) that "at 5 P.M. we crossed the Platte itself and landed at Fort Kearney, fifty-six hours out from St Joe – THREE HUNDRED MILES!” I calculate therefore that they moved at an average of 5.3 mph. Only a few years later, the train would take passengers roughly four times as fast, at 19.1 mph. They are thrilled to see the Pony Express rider gallop past their stage and Twain tells us that the series of young horsemen carried letters from St Joe to Sacramento, nineteen hundred miles in eight days, or 235 miles a day. A wagon train would do approximately 100 miles a week. By the way, the fare from St Joseph to Carson City, Nevada was a hundred and fifty dollars – a monstrous sum at the time.
Twain is amusing about the firearms his party had with them. He himself was equipped with a derringer-like pistol (which appears in a fun Louis L’Amour novel, Showdown at Yellow Butte). Twain says:

I was armed to the teeth with a pitiful little Smith & Wesson’s seven-shooter, which carried a ball like a homeopathic pill, and it took the whole seven to make a dose for an adult. But I thought it was grand. It appeared to me to be a dangerous weapon. It only had one fault – you could not hit anything with it. One of our ‘conductors’ [shotgun messengers] practiced awhile on a cow with it, and as long as she stood still and behaved herself she was safe; but as soon as she went to moving about, and he got to shooting at other things, she came to grief.
You could not hit anything with it
Their fellow passenger had an old Allen pepperbox pistol, a revolver whose multiple barrels turned, with a kind of double-action in which it was only necessary to pull the trigger.

George’s was a reliable weapon … as one of the stage drivers afterward said, “If she didn’t get what she went after, she would fetch something else.” And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it.
The Allen pepperbox
The six-up stage, “of the most sumptuous description”, almost certainly a Concord (before they changed to a mud-wagon further down the trail) is described in detail. Twain says, interestingly, that it was the shotgun guard, whom he called the ‘conductor’, who was the princely commander of the vessel; the driver came next in the hierarchy but the conductor was regarded by all with reverence and awe, and his word was law.

Of course we get descriptions of the landscape they pass through, the flora and fauna. The sage brush in particular is a great ally. It burns hot and smokelessly and will keep in all night.

Twain loves the tall story (aka the whopper) which he tells disingenuously and straight-faced, but, you sense, with a wry smile. Occasionally he owns up to the falsehood. The description of the journey is punctuated with anecdotes, including the one about Horace Greeley’s trip West and the one about how their fellow passenger was treed by a buffalo.
Reviewer BB Toby in The San Francisco Call, April 28, 1872, wrote

One peculiarity in Twain is, that the reader is never deceived; there is not the least effort required to discover when he is in earnest and when he is joking. Even in those sudden transitions from solemn narrative to grotesque metaphor or absurd assertion, he does not offend, for the very grotesqueness and absurdity save the reader's vanity from affront; he feels that Twain is not laughing at, but with him that is, so the reader believes. In truth, Mark tells some of the most magnificent "whoppers" with an ease and seeming candor not to be controverted except by those who know the facts--witness his narrative of his first effort as a lecturer.

They are not troubled by Indians or outlaws, though you sense a certain disappointment about that on Twain’s part.

Several chapters are devoted to the story of Jack Slade, whom Twain met. Joseph Alfred Slade (1831 - 1864) was really the archetypal Western badman and gunfighter. His story fascinated many, East and West, including Twain. You get the feeling that Twain loves to tell of Slade’s victims and their grisly fates. It’s an interesting illustration of how even at the time exaggeration was an integral part of Western tale-telling. To read Twain, you’d think Slade was a bloodthirsty serial killer on an unprecedented scale, and we are told about his 26 shootings (in fact he certainly killed one man and possibly two). Slade appeared surprisingly rarely in Western movies. An entirely fictional Slade is in the 1941 Randolph Scott picture Western Union and there was a 1955 Stories of the Century TV episode about him, almost as fictional. The best screen Slade was in 1953, in the black & white ‘B’ Western Jack Slade, but that too was completely unhistorical.
The 'desperado' Jack Slade
Twain is informative about Utah, Salt Lake and the Mormons, though you sense that he was a little restrained about what he said. Still, he does not hesitate to apportion blame for the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 1857 to the Mormons, especially their Elders. He has a lengthy appendix on the matter (Twain was told that his book was too short and he had to pad it with appendices). He says that the Mormon bible is “chloroform in print” and declares that “if Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle – keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate.” Later, he says:

The Mormon Bible is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings. Its code of morals is unobjectionable – it is “smouched” from the New Testament and no credit given.

On page 71, Twain declares himself “a disciple of [James Fenimore] Cooper and a worshipper of the red man”, yet by modern standards some of his comments on Native Americans are very hard to read. Of the Goshute Indians he says:

The Bushmen and our Goshoots are manifestly descended from the self-same gorilla, or kangaroo, or Norway rat, whichever animal-Adam the Darwinians trace them to.

When Roughing It came out, not all reviews were glowing.  The anonymous reviewer in the British Manchester Guardian of March 6, 1872 wrote:

A large part of Roughing It is devoted to the account of the journey by the already obsolete overland coach. And here our author treads on much the same ground as Artemus Ward in Among the Mormons, though his experiences were of a somewhat different character. He does not shine in comparison, as his humour, such as it is, is immeasurably inferior, though of the same school, depending on ludicrous exaggeration and quaint unexpectedness of comparison. Artemus amused us by his genuine fun and originality; but if there is one thing more than another that is spoilt by mannerism it is humour, and if the mannerism of an individual is offensive, the mannerism of a school is insufferable. Mark Twain, too, often falls into the slang of transatlantic journalism, and displays also its characteristic inability to distinguish between the picturesque and the grotesque.

The equally anon writer in The Sacramento Union, May 18, 1872, was even more scathing:

In these days, when linen and cotton rags are so dear and the demands of the American press are so pressing that we have to import paper material from Europe, it is a waste and a shame to throw so much trash in the shape of swollen volumes upon the market.

There’s a really excellent website devoted to this wonderful book and I do recommend it. Better still, though, read the book. You’ll have huge fun and if you are interested in the West (how odd you would be if you were not) you will learn a lot.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson


The Cold Dish (Viking, 2005) is the first of Craig Johnson’s series of police procedurals featuring Sheriff Walter Longmire, of ‘Absaroka County’, Wyoming.  It is very good.

21st century Westerns can’t be easy to write. There is the risk that either they won’t ring true as real-life dramas of today because they are forced into the mold of Western tradition (or cliché), or that they don’t look right as ‘proper’ Westerns, being too present-day savvy and looking at society through a very different prism.

On the other hand, Westerns and crime novels are blood brothers. You only had to ask Elmore Leonard or Robert B Parker, who wrote both and whose modern detective books have more than a whiff of Western about them. As Parker has one of his characters say in a Spenser novel modeled on The Magnificent Seven, and doubtless Leonard would have agreed, “We deal in lead, friend.”
Good book
So setting a murder mystery in the ‘pure’ West of Wyoming and having your protagonist wear a beaver-felt Stetson and carry a .45 is in many ways a perfect match. Just like the ballistics report on the slug from the 1876 Sharps used to do the deed(s) in Vol. 1.

As Wyoming is the least densely populated state of the Union and also has the lowest per capita murder rate (2.4 homicides per 100,000 population in 2012 as opposed to Alabama’s 7.1 and a national average of 4.7), it’s odd that Absaroka County should have such a high body count but that’s police procedurals for you. You wouldn’t want to move to that sleepy English village where Miss Marple resided either, not if you desired longevity, or, come to that, to the scene of those CSI: Any City You Like episodes, where the most ingenious ways are devised of disposing of many of the denizens by the extraordinarily murderous other inhabitants, often with several slaughterers and slaughterees in one show. Poor old Longmire. All of those Wyoming annual homicides seem to happen in his county. He’s gonna find it hard to get re-elected.
Johnson seems a cheery fellow
There are some excellent characters apart from Walter himself. At the station (an old Carnegie library), salty-tongued Victoria Moretti, Vic, is from an Italian family of police back in Philadephia, a career cop who finds herself in this backwater because of her (unsatisfactory but never seen) husband. Walter likes her and in fact is grooming her as his successor. Walt’s other deputy, Turk, is the nephew of his predecessor as sheriff and also aims for Walt’s job come next election. He is flashy and vulgar, as you can tell from “the juke box Turk called his car”, a canary-yellow TransAm with myriad decals and bad-taste bumper stickers, and sheriff and deputy don’t get on. In fact they come to blows. Turk spends a lot of the book out of town, though, and towards the end applies for a Highway Patrol job – Longmire gives him a glowing testimonial. The team also includes dispatcher Ruby, a stern, kindly, motherly figure who keeps Walt on the straight and narrow. Or else.

Walt Longmire is a widower of three years but finally manages to get his life back together somewhat and, with the aid of his best friend Henry Standing Bear, the Cheyenne owner of The Red Pony bar, Walt shows interest in a woman, Vonnie. Vonnie is the rich daughter of a suicided daddy and she plays a growingly important part in the plot. She isn’t just Western love interest.

Longmire is very fat. That part was lost in the TV series with its svelte actor but you ‘see’ this excess of weight quite a lot in the book. When Henry takes him in hand and makes him start running in the morning, the effects are nearly fatal but that and the desire to impress Vonnie do lead to a slight reduction in pounds.
Aussie Harrison Ford lookalike - not fat enough
There's a hint of the Spenser/Hawk relationship in the Longmire/Henry one: it's permitted between them and they know each other well enough for Longmire to make joshingly slighting (obviously ironic) racial references about redskins. Come to think about it, Spenser came from Wyoming.

The murder weapon gives a very Western flavor to the book. It is an 1876 Sharps used by the Cheyenne at Custer’s Last Stand. Its story and its power make it a real character in the novel.

Series 1 of the TV show is partly and loosely based on this novel – but very loosely. I enjoyed the series though here in France it was shown on a channel, D8, that really ought to fire its director of programming. The episodes were shown in a random order, starting with 2 and with the pilot somewhere in the middle, some episodes repeated and some missed out entirely till shown after the final one (which was shown third to last). The Programming Director could perhaps be shifted to a job more in line with her or his talents. In charge of the D8 photocopier, for example. Though D8 staff would get their copies back with some pages missing, some repeated and all in the wrong order. Paperclip Acquisition Manager, maybe.

The TV Longmire, Robert Taylor – no, not that one; this one’s Aussie and the other one's dead - looks like Harrison Ford and acts a little like Tom Selleck’s Jesse Stone. Generally the cast is satisfactory and the series quite enjoyable. Lou Diamond Phillips is Standing Bear, in his Steinbeckian bar. Mr. Phillips is of Spanish, Scotch-Irish, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian and Cherokee ancestry, which is, I guess, why they chose him to play a Cheyenne. He’s very good though

All in all, however, the book is classier. The TV treatment of the first book changes the murderer, misses out the Nieman-Marcus helicopter and doesn’t even have the Sharps. Very poor show, though the Sharps turned up in another episode, before or after, who knows.

Series 2 isn’t out yet here in the Old World. I may have to wait and see it on DVD so that I can catch the episodes in the right order. I will watch it though.

But do read the book. It’s well written and Western enough to be taken seriously.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Breakheart Pass (United Artists, 1975)

Where Cowboys Dare
Because this is set in the Rockies in about the 1870s and has US Cavalry and Indians and outlaws and so on, we must class it as a Western but in reality it’s a whodunit. Alistair MacLean wrote a great number of action thrillers in the 1960s and some were made into popular films such as The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and so on. They all had incredible plot twists and a ‘British’ feel to them, even if set in exotic locations. This one is a kind of Where Cowboys Dare.
Will the hero be killed? No.
It’s all set on a train and soon enough we have the inevitable “We have a killer aboard.”  Someone is whacking passengers one by one and no one is who he (or she) seems. Church ministers, doctors, train engineers - all meet their grisly ends but of course they aren’t really church ministers. It’s Mr. MacLean’s tribute to Agatha Christie, perhaps: Murder on the Occidental Express.

Charles Bronson is brave, omnipotent and laconic. As it’s a train drama he has his fair share of deadly fights on the roof. The 2nd Unit director was Yakima Canutt (his last movie) so the stunts are good. A bald baddy with a beard has taken over the fort and is planning to give the Indians the train’s cargo of guns and ammunition. Fortunately for the action finale, the train’s also carrying lots of dynamite and Bronson is, naturally, expert in its use.
Secret agent Bronson
There’s some nice Lucien Ballard photography of Idaho scenery (this and another Mr. & Mrs. Bronson film the following year, From Noon Till Three, were his last Westerns) and the train is good. It chugs over high trestles (or one high trestle several times anyway). The movie was directed by Tom Gries, who did the excellent Will Penny and the fun 100 Rifles. This was his last Western.
Nice trestle
The acting is fairly perfunctory. Bronson as a secret agent was no Laurence Olivier and Jill Ireland, Mrs. Bronson, is really wooden – sorry. There are some solid character actors (Charles Durning, Bill McKinney, David Huddleston; Richard Crenna is the Governor of Utah). But it’s not the actors’ fault. Even the great Ben Johnson can’t rise above a frankly dire screenplay. Mr. MacLean really should have stuck to paperback adventures and given Western movies a miss.
Ben the Great. But even he can't save it.
On a superficial level this is a decent actioner. There are plenty of shoot ‘em ups and bodies falling from the train. But the characters are two-dimensional and there is no development. There’s no real suspense. You just get the idea that it’s a formula and we, the viewers, are going through the motions just as the actors are.
Second rate - though it did well at the box-office.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Silver Rock by Luke Short

Good modern western

Silver Rock (1953) is a modern Western, about a war hero, Tully Gibbs, back from Korea, who wangles his way into the trust of his dead fellow serviceman’s dad and sets up a mining operation in (probably) Colorado. But the period setting is unimportant because it is a Western to all other intents and purposes, with a man doing what he’s gotta do, beating the bad guys and winning the day – and girl. It could easily have been set in the 1880s or with the hero back from the Spanish-American war, for example.

Luke Short (Frederick D Glidden, 1908 - 1975) was one of the great writers of Western fiction. His books, from The Feud at Single Shot in 1935 to Trouble Country, published posthumously in 1976, were classic, straight-down-the-line short paperbacks, tightly plotted, authentic, with strong characters and with lots of action. They were not ‘literary’ but neither were they pulp. Several were made into films: Gunman’s Chance, Station West, Ambush, but in particular three excellent tales which made splendid movies, Ramrod (1947, directed by André de Toth and starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake), Coroner Creek (1948, directed by Ray Enright and starring Randolph Scott and Edgar Buchanan), and Vengeance Valley (1951, directed by Richard Thorpe and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Walker).
In Silver Rock you’ve got an interesting take on early 1950s small town America, with its respectable and less respectable characters. The truth-telling, wry, slightly cynical newspaper editor is a well-known Western figure. Here, Sam Horne is a classic example. He takes a shine to Beth Hodes, decent sister of Ben Hodes, the rich bad guy who tries to stop our hero Tully. Part of the reason for Ben Hodes’s enmity is jealousy over the lovely Sarah, and the protagonist and antagonist slug it out over her. Ben hires a minion to sabotage the mining equipment and shoot at the miners (a weakness of the book is that this fellow is never mentioned again) and he also bribes one of the County Commissioners, so we get another aspect of the small town West, corruption.

There’s some good description of the bulldozing of a road and starting the mine but while the detail sounds authentic it is not too technical and doesn’t get in the way or sound as if we are having to sit through a lecture on ore extraction.
Well, it’s pretty predictable perhaps how it’ll all turn out. Still, the fact that Sarah discovers Tully’s initial dishonesty (he wrote false letters to the father from the dying son) and how Tully deals with that is interestingly done.

I wouldn’t put this one at the very top of the list of great Luke Short Westerns, but you’ll enjoy a read of it if you come across the paperback somewhere. If you’re new to Short, start with Vengeance Valley and Ramrod – they are really good. But none of the 52 books will disappoint you.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Maverick (Warner Bros, 1994)

How the West was fun



Most Western fans of a certain age have a soft spot for the Maverick TV series and associate James Garner first with Maverick and only afterwards with Rockford or other roles. Of course Gunsmoke was the main attraction and Have Gun, Will Travel probably came next, followed by any number of great TV shows like Wagon Train, Cheyenne and Wells Fargo. And in Maverick Jack Kelly was alright. Robert Colbert and even Roger Moore put in a performance as occasional brothers. But it was Garner who made it. That charming faux-cowardice hiding secret grit and the constant “as my Papy used to say…” made the gambler Maverick into a great Western archetype.

Sometimes, when attempts are made to translate these series to the big screen, they fail utterly. Especially more than thirty years on.
Excellent, all three
So it was a huge delight in 1994 when the movie Maverick came out and was real fun. Mel Gibson (whose pet project it was and whose Icon company produced it) was outstanding as Bret. He must have studied old Maverick shows and he caught the mannerisms perfectly. He even looked like Garner.
The writing, by William Goldman, was also extremely competent. He was the guilty party in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (a weak Western in which the writing was the weakest part) but had clearly improved a lot. There are great lines, a clever plot and a lot of classic Maverick humor.
And, as if that weren’t enough, James Garner was in it too.
Garner plays rough
It was really odd at first when he (the lawman Zane Cooper, known as Coop) talks to Gibson and refers to him as ‘Maverick’. It took some getting used to.

Graham Greene is terrific as the forward-looking Indian chief and Alfred Molina excellent as the evil Angel. There’s James Coburn as the conman commodore. Jodie Foster is fine as the voluptuous gambler lady. We even get Denver Pyle (white-bearded and, ahem, imposing) as a poker player. The whole Mississippi river boat (a fine one, by the way) is in fact populated by country singers or former TV Western stars. One of the poker players was the great heavy Leo Gordon, who wrote some episodes of the TV Maverick. Others were Doug McClure, Robert Fuller, James Drury. Bert Remsen is there – his very first Western appearance, in 1957, was in a Maverick episode. Wishbone, the cook from Rawhide, drives the stage. Dub Taylor (247 Westerns) is the room clerk.
Doug McClure back row, left. Robert Fuller, center row, right.
Dig the Lethal Weapon references when Danny Glover and Mel Gibson appear to recognize each other during a bank robbery. Danny even says he is too old for this expletive.
There’s the famous Canutt stunt as ‘Maverick’ goes under the stage and leaps from horse to horse. There’s some splendid scenery: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Columbia River Gorge and up at Lone Pine. First class photography by Vilmos Zsigmond (who also, briefly, appears). Fun music by Randy Newman.  There’s nothing wrong with this film.
The mighty Denver
And the ending, the first time you see this movie, is hilarious and so, so right. Even on repeat viewings you can’t help smiling at it.
With Commodore Coburn
The movie appeals hugely to decrepit Western fans like your own Jeff but would also be attractive to a new generation who, poor things, never saw the original Maverick on TV in the 50s. Mel Gibson is far from my favorite actor; this movie and Payback were the only good things he has ever done and he has appeared in and promoted some disgraceful junk. But full marks to him, and Warners and director Richard Donner (who had done quite a lot of Rifleman episodes and Lethal Weapon). They made an adorable Western.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Way Out West (Universal, 1937)


A Christmas treat for you:

Only a Western in the very vaguest sense, this is a stupendously good Laurel & Hardy comedy which has Stan & Ollie going to Brushwood Gulch to look for a Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence), to give her the deed of a gold mine that her uncle, Stan & Ollie’s partner, has left her, only to find that the saloon moll Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne), at the behest of crooked saloon keeper Mickey Finn (James Finlayson), impersonates Mary to gain control of the mine.

Once the intrepid pair have realized this, the comedy comes from their efforts to get the deed back, which result in, among other normal occurrences, a mule hoisted up to the upstairs window in the place of Ollie.
There is an absolutely charming dance by the two in front of the saloon while The Avalon Boys sing, perhaps the highlight of the film. This soft-shoe routine has been described as “casually sublime”. And one of the Avalon Boys was Chill Wills, who also dubbed the bass part when Stan joined in a duet of ‘On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ with Ollie, another top moment.
It is said that James Finlayson’s “Doh!” when he accidentally fired his gun in bed gave rise to Homer Simpson’s catchphrase.

It’s little more than an hour but it is an absolute delight. Of course all famous comedy acts had to do a Western and there are some splendid examples from Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, WC Fields and Bob Hope among others. This one is up there in the higher ranks. There’s an excellent quality DVD with remastered print.

A little gem.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Last of the Mohicans (Warner Bros, 1992)

Heat on the Hudson


There have been film and TV versions of The Last of the Mohicans a-plenty between 1911 and 1992 and doubtless there will be more. My favorite is the Randolph Scott one of 1936. When James Fenimore Cooper wrote the books in the 1820s they were Westerns. They told tales of daring on the frontier a half century before, which is what early- and mid-twentieth century Western movies did. The introductory titles of this film set the scene for us “On the frontier, west of the Hudson River”. Now, to the fan of ‘proper’ Westerns the Hudson is hardly the West and stories of men on foot and French and British officers in tricorn hats and swords don’t really make the cut. Still, Daniel Day Lewis, who is excellent as Nathaniel (the man of many names – Pathfinder, Hawkeye, Natty Bumppo, La Longue Carabine, etc.), is a Western hero in that he knows the ways of the wild, is a brave fighter, shoots straight, is something of a loner and does what a man’s gotta do. So I guess we can let it pass.
Not the liveliest of reads
This is a big production with a mega-budget, lots of action and a cast of hundreds, who were nothing beside the crew. The credits go on and on. I know that these days they feel obliged to give great prominence in the credits to those who supplied hamburgers to the driver of the hairdresser’s assistant but still, rarely can so many people have worked on the production of a movie. The credits take about as long as the film.
Action Dan
It’s visually attractive, photographed by Dante Spinotti in North Carolina. There is a slight hint of 1990s romantic soft lighting and backlit close-ups of faces, like shampoo ads, as the lovers stare into each other’s eyes. This atmosphere is reinforced by the music, by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones, which is swirling and sometimes ponderous and occasionally breaks out into early 90s Clannad-style nostalgia. The lerve in the forest reminds you a bit of modern versions of Robin Hood.
As for the acting, to support the excellent Day Lewis (who, we are told, lived in the wild for a month or two to get into the spirit of the part, which is taking method acting a bit far) we have two very attractive young women, Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May, and they do well.  The elder is spunky and brave and the younger is (really quite astonishingly) beautiful and fey. Steven Waddington does a solid job as the tiresome, pompous major who does the right thing in the end (and he seems to speak good French, so full marks there). The rest of the yanquis are alright but it’s the Indians who steal the show. Russell Means is a noble Chingachgook and Eric Schweig, later to play even better Indians (especially in The Missing), is superb. But best of all is Wes Studi as Magua, a truly worthy foe of Hawkeye – you really need a strong Magua and many versions are let down by their Maguas. Studi is simply magnificent.
The director, producer and co-writer, Michael Mann (I like Heat), had apparently never read the novel and that might have been just as well for the book is mighty slow. Have you ever tried reading the Leatherstocking tales? Boy, are they long. I have them on my iPad and just the first one (chronologically) is over 6000 i-Pad pages. This film really does extract the action bits and squeeze them into the 107 minutes. The film never pauses even for them to reload their single-shot rifles, which they fire with extraordinary rapidity.
Gripping stuff
Of course the whole plot is really ineffably silly. What are posh upper-class English gels doing walking around the Indian-infested American forest in the first place, and why did their daddy let them go off with the Indian? Still, since when did we complain about Westerns on the grounds of improbable plots…

There’s supposed to be a 1999 re-edited director’s cut but I have only seen the original.
That's a longue carabine
Anyway, you could do worse than have a look at this version, if you think that Mohicans tales are Westerns.

Did they have cell phones then?