Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
Director: John Ford
Cast: Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Edna May Oliver
Synopsis: Newlyweds Gil and Lana Martin try to establish a farm in the Mohawk Valley but are menaced by Indians and Tories as the Revolutinary War begins.
Drums Along the Mohawk is one of three movies made by iconic director John Ford in 1939; the other two were Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln, so it’s perhaps understandable that this one sometimes gets overlooked as a result. It’s a rousing frontier adventure story, set in New York rather than the West during the Revolutionary War. Drums Along the Mohawk was Ford’s first movie in colour, and cinematographers Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan’s fine work captures both the rugged beauty of the Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and Ford’s exhilarating compositions of men marching to war or toiling in the fields. The movie looks like a painting at times, and Glennon and Rennahan were fully deserving of their Oscar nomination for Best Colour Cinematography although, as they were up against Sidney Howard’s work for Gone With the Wind, they stood little chance of winning it.
The movie opens with the marriage of farmer Gil Martin (Henry Fonda) to city girl Lana (Claudette Colbert) and their immediate move to the Mohawk Valley where Gil tries to establish a farm. Together, the couple suffer the hardships of frontier life, including an attack by Mohawk Indians – orchestrated by the dastardly eye patch-wearing British Tory Caldwell (John Carradine) – which destroys their modest log cabin. The couple move in with Mrs. McKlennar (Edna Mae Oliver), a crusty but kind-hearted old widow, and for a while they are happy – but the horrors of the war are never far away, and it’s not long before the Indians launch another attack.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ford was never one to skim over the real hardships of life in the old west (or east, in this case). He shows us the sweat and toil that goes into tending the fields and constructing the barns, and the strength of a tight-knit community whose bonds are only fortified by the ever-present Indians. Both Fonda and Colbert are perhaps a little too pretty too convince us that they are suffering the hardships we see, but Fonda at least displays the kind of resolute spirit a man would need to survive. Colbert, who was at her best as a light comedienne, was already miscast, and while she tries manfully to come to grips with her role, it doesn’t really give her that much to work with: she faints, she cries, she prays, she faints – it’s a wonder that her character doesn’t come across as annoying, and you can‘t help wishing she would show a little more of the chutzpah displayed by old Mrs McKlennar, portrayed by Edna Mae Oliver with a typical brusque authority tinged with sly humour.
Ford fills the story with his usual social rituals: the births and weddings, the religious ceremonies and the dancing, and the frequent intrusion of often violent and bloody death. The action scenes are impeccably staged, but the highlight is a lengthy foot chase in which Gil is pursued by three toned and seemingly tireless Indians. It begins at night as Gil sneaks out of a besieged fortress to seek help, and progresses against a dazzling blood-red sunrise before playing out against a fierce sunrise. Gil ploughs through dense forest, vaults over tumbled branches, wades through rivers, pauses for precious seconds to snatch a mouthful of water from a near-parched brook, all the time with those three braves never more than a couple of hundred yards behind him. It’s a superb sequence, filled with tension, in which you can almost taste Gil’s fear.
Ford is rightly venerated as one of the giants of cinema. While Drums Along the Mohawk isn’t one of his classics, it still stands as evidence of Ford’s skill and vision behind the camera. For many other directors of the Hollywood studio era, a film like Drums Along the Mohawk would be considered a career highlight, for Ford it’s just one that he made between classics.
(Reviewed 12th July 2012)