Director: John Ford
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The year 1939 stands out in film history as a banner year, when such megaclassics as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Love Affair, Dark Victory, and John Ford’s Stagecoach came out and competed for the best picture Oscar. You might say that 1939 was an especially good one for Ford as well. He premiered two other noteworthy films that year, both starring Henry Fonda—Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk, his first Technicolor film. All period films, Drums Along the Mohawk has the feel of a Western, but covers the period just before to just after the Revolutionary War. Noteworthy for its realistic period detail and a level of hardship and brutality I had not remembered from my first viewing of this film many years ago on a local TV show called Family Classics, Ford exposes just how hard and fragile was the life of early American homesteaders.
The film starts in the elegant city home of the Borst family, where Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert) is being married to Gilbert Martin (Fonda). After the simple ceremony, the film cuts to the young couple leaving in a covered wagon for a homestead in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, towing a wedding present—a dairy cow—behind them. The long day’s journey through varying terrains, shot with Ford’s signature expansiveness, brings the Martins to an inn, where Gil persuades Lana to have some vodka to toast their marriage. The innkeeper (Spencer Charters) embarrasses them by teasing them about their newlywed status, and a patch-eyed colonial named Caldwell (John Carradine) asks them about their political affiliation—American or Tory—in an intrusive and sinister manner.
The following evening, the Martins arrive at the cabin Gil built on the homestead. It is very cold and a very far cry from the type of home Lana left behind. As she tries to put on a brave face, Gil builds a fire in the hearth and goes out to shelter the livestock. While he is gone, Lana is scared out of her wits by the intrusion of a Native American. Blue Back (Chief Big Tree) is a friend of the white settlers in the region and a Christian convert given to shouting “Hallelujah,” but Gil barely calms Lana’s hysterics before she says she intends to return to her parents. Gil brings her around slowly, and Lana eventually integrates into the community and starts working the land with Gil.
The primitive conditions of life on the farm don’t factor much into the hardships the Martins face; instead, war is the “natural” element that heaps tragedy upon the Martins and their community. Native Americans in the employ of Caldwell gather a war party to attack. They burn the Martins’ home and crops and send every homesteader in the vicinity running for their lives to the nearby fort commanded by the genial Gen. Herkimer (Roger Imhof), where Lana collapses and has a miscarriage. Economic necessity forces the Martins to work in the house and farm of Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver), a scrappy, well-to-do widow. They hope to save enough money from their earnings to rebuild. Unfortunately, the approach of British troops and their Native American mercenaries pushes every member of the settlement into battle in one way or another, as more homesteads are burned and more attacks are made on the fort. By the time American troops reach the remote Mohawk Valley to inform its residents of Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington, the homesteaders claim the right to raise the Stars and Stripes themselves as the defenders of their piece of the United States. After witnessing the grueling trials of the homesteaders, the audience wouldn’t have it any other way.
Drums Along the Mohawk doesn’t romanticize the war for independence, nor does it make the eventual victory of the Americans seem a forgone conclusion for the people it portrays. Indeed, the Mohawk Valley settlers are in trouble from the get-go—isolated, loosely organized, outnumbered. So outnumbered, in fact, that every eligible fighting man is told that if he does not report for battle, he will be hanged. Even the preacher (Arthur Shields) is a reluctant sharpshooter and the women work on reloading the one-shot rifles and dumping boiling water on the attackers when the fort is under siege. The fort itself looks like it could blow down in a good wind, and its walls are easily breachable by the fairly short ladders the Native Americans carry for that purpose.
Ford handles graphic violence in a suggestive way that only slightly blunts the horror. After a face-to-face battle, one-third of the men who went out to engage the British return. Gil, looking shell-shocked, sits against the wall of a make-shift infirmary and recounts the battle to Lana, who is busily cleaning and dressing his wounds. Every detail is burned into his memory, including the fact that his friend Adam (Ward Bond) actually was enjoying himself. His last memory is of a Native American mercenary being impaled on a pike. Gil complains that Gen. Herkimer sat holding his knee after being shot early in the charge; he is not aware that the general will lose his life in an attempt to amputate his gangrenous leg, a procedure we know will happen but will not be allowed to hear or see. Another shattering scene occurs when the simple-minded Joe (Francis Ford) volunteers to try to reach reinforcements. After apparently getting away, his friends can only look on in horror as the mercenaries wheel into the open a smiling Joe, who is tied to a wagon stuffed with hay. The homesteaders try frantically to keep the mercenaries from setting fire to the wagon, only to fail and force the preacher to shoot Joe to spare him burning to death.
Ford’s superlative facility with ensembles and the details that bring a time and place to life are on full display here. We watch the community help Gil and Lana clear their land, cutting trees and pulling stumps using oxen and fulcrums made of young birch trees, and burning the felled timber to make ash to fertilize the soil. A scene in the church shows the organist playing an instrument made with two bellows that must be pushed by hand. The sacrifice of livestock and belongings when the Native Americans come a-burnin’ is done without endless complaint—homesteaders do what must be done.
I very much enjoyed the interplay between Edna May Oliver and Ward Bond. Bond’s Adam is more than a little flirtatious with Oliver’s widow woman. He clearly loves her and gives her a passionate kiss at one point in the film, rather a surprisingly wonderful moment that she brushes off as her due. Mrs. McKlennar is a woman who never liked being confined to domestic duties and does what she pleases now that she’s a widow. Imagine a woman, and a pioneer woman at that, actually saying she doesn’t like cooking and cleaning! Imagine a woman like Edna May Oliver being considered desirable by a strapping man like Ward Bond. In Hollywood, it’s just not done. In John Ford films, however, it is!
Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert have a tremendous chemistry, playing a passionately in love couple with very convincing feeling. I must admit being able to see Fonda’s brilliant, blue eyes added to the believability of Colbert’s ardor, but her initial shock at seeing the cabin and Blue Back was horrifyingly real as well. Other supporting characters, like the snobbish Mrs. Demooth (Kay Linaker), add color and humor, but not a great deal of depth. Like many Ford films, the teeming mise-en-scene and expansive vistas of a wild country (filming took place in Utah) create the big slice of life Ford seeks to capture more than completely rounded characters.
On the other hand, the enemy Native Americans are allowed to be people, not caricatures. In the final scene, Ford gives us close-ups of a number of characters, including Daisy (Beulah Hall Jones), a free black woman who works for Mrs. McKlennar, showing us the diversity of Americans present at the birth of the nation. It’s a bold statement from a man who felt peace should be as inclusive as war. Drums Along the Mohawk is a fine film that more cinephiles should take the time to rediscover.