While The King and I’s Anna never dropped a single bead of sweat or snagged a single thread while negotiating the palace of Siam, The Last of the Mohicans’ Cora and Alice Munro’s dresses get torn to shreds as the sisters hack through the forests and scrabble across the Precambrian rock formations of upstate New York during the French and Indian War, fight off Huron war parties, slip through a French siege, and get soaked during a surprisingly suspenseful low-speed canoe getaway.
Cora and Alice are the unwitting objects of a blood feud declared by Magua, a Huron whose family was killed by the girls’ father, Colonel Munro. It’s this that sends Cora, Alice, and Cora’s suitor, Duncan, fleeing through the wilderness in the middle of a war under the protection of the three Mohicans.
As a character, Cora’s younger sister, Alice, never gets fleshed out—she only has a few lines, plus one incredibly moving, wordless scene at the end—but the gorgeous dress she wears during the second half of the film makes a big impression. During a brief respite from their flight through the wilderness, Cora is quick to trade in her silks for a practical striped skirt and homespun bodice (Betsy Ross minus the mobcap), while Alice simply replaces one ruined gown with another—a cream-colored confection covered with crewelwork embroidery, a boned bodice, and flounces at her elbows. It seems a bit old-fashioned, even for the time, more Renaissance fair than Colonial America.
Wearing such a fairytale dress in that desperate setting could have made Alice seem silly, but it doesn’t. Mostly, it is poignant. While Cora has the right stuff to adapt to the realities of the New World, Alice doesn’t. But neither does she have the maturity to confidently carry her bit of England with her. Alice isn’t a brat—she’s an innocent.
I was 14 when Last of the Mohicans came out, an age more inclined to admire Cora but identify with Alice and her chaste, courtly romance with the Mohican Uncas. Not coincidentally, 14 was also an age for incessantly doodling wedding dresses, the more princessy, the better. I found some of those drawings not long ago, when I helped my father pack up our old house to sell, and for years I kept returning to the idea of a cream-colored gown with flounced, elbow-length sleeves and crewelwork flowers embroidered on the bodice. I had long since forgotten this fantasy by the time I did marry, which is probably for the best: Alice and Uncas were the last children of their kind, and they did not live happily ever after.