Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

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.

  • Fredrik Gustafsson spoke:
    4th/06/2012 to 5:40 pm

    Couldn’t agree more, it’s a great film, and the sequence you mentioned, about the shell-shocked Gil, is among the most powerful Ford (and Fonda) ever did. The long takes and deep focus adds a lot to the power of the sequence too. I’ve been thinking about writing about the film myself, now I don’t have to!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/06/2012 to 7:10 pm

    Hi, Fredrik. I decided to watch this based on the fact it was a choice for Family Classics. I wasn’t aware when I was a child what great films they really had lined up for us, or what great filmmakers were responsible for them. This surprised me in a very good way.

  • Jon spoke:
    4th/06/2012 to 8:09 pm

    Wow Marilyn this brings back some memories. I loved watching this when I was a kid. But amazingly, I probably have not seen it in at least 20 years!!!! I used to watch it a lot when I was 8 or 10. What is shocking me about these screen shots is that they’re in color! I think I was watching on a black and white TV at the time that was in my bedroom! I didn’t even know it was in color! How crazy is that?! I do need to re-watch this one.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/06/2012 to 9:02 pm

    Jon – I have had your same experience, though we had a color set earlier than most people. Ford didn’t make another film in color for 9 years, and I can’t understand why. He did a beautiful job with this one.

  • Roderick spoke:
    4th/06/2012 to 9:27 pm

    I first partook of this film about six months ago, and frankly, I just wasn’t very impressed. Yes, it has many quintessential Ford touches, and the man was never less than the cinema’s reigning poet of the character vignette, but as a whole this film is weirdly muted and stiff. I sensed Ford had Darryl Zanuck’s foot on his neck throughout, because apart from Edna May Oliver and that single, tremendous scene where the beaten Revolutionaries return, it’s politely dull most of the way, in a prestige picture fashion. It’s also dominated by one of Ford’s less compelling tendencies, which is to be episodic and ambling, the visuals proceed in blandly picture-book Technicolor frames that are static and lifeless, and frankly Fonda and Colbert’s characters remain blank and dreary symbols where characters ought to be. Even the proto-The Naked Prey finale is left as a curtailed sketch for something that ought to be exciting. It’s the antithesis of the perfect form and function of Stagecoach. I gave a sigh of relief when I watched Three Godfathers a few days later and found Ford’s sense of humour, drama, and visual intensity undiluted by comparison.

  • Grand Old Movies spoke:
    4th/06/2012 to 10:04 pm

    I like Ford’s use of color in this film, particularly the deep blues and golden haze he used for the sky and landscape–it gave a sense of how fresh and endless the country must once have looked, when still in its wild, natural state. Colbert always seemed a little out of place to me, too urban/e and sophisticated, though maybe Ford wanted that quality to suggest her character’s more genteel background. One of the more fascinating scenes was the ‘running’ episode, when Fonda has to outrun several Indian warriors to reach anther fort (it looks like a precursor to Ben Johnson’s great riding scene in ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’) – there was also a wonderful rhythm in that sequence, which gave a dreamlike, mythic quality, like young gods contesting with each other.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    4th/06/2012 to 10:56 pm

    Excellent review, it was a somewhat overlooked film for so long – I’ve always like the pacing on it. It has some loopy moments in it tho, Ford’s curious humor bits – the bed bit is surreal. It has great set-pieces, tho, and looks wonderful. A good triple bill with 1939’s “Allegheny Uprising” and 1947’s “Unconquered” (which has the best villain of the three, Howard Da Silva), get your French & Indian jones fixed.

  • Cheryl Stoy spoke:
    4th/06/2012 to 11:28 pm

    Found this film about 10 years ago on AMC while wide awake at 2am…best reason I ever had for being wide awake at 2am. I loved what Ford did with movie…as he often did in all his films…he embraced subtlety, letting the land images tell the story and help round out the characters and he wasn’t afraid of showing strong, against typecast women (Oliver steals the show.)

    I think people mistake Ford’s background characters as not being complex enough because he may not delve deeply into their personas. He didn’t have too…he was content to understand that not all characters need be major to a plotline, indeed some simply provide the extra “it” needed to help weave
    the film’s cadence from scene to scene.

    Ford was a master at this. As he did with Bond’s character in Rio Bravo, not a major or lengthy role but one that propels the film forward and forces the issue at hand and whose short existence leaves a lasting effect on all involved.

  • Jeremy spoke:
    5th/06/2012 to 1:48 am

    “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. ”

    Generally, I believe that films should be viewed in the context of the time they were made. I would agree that John Ford had a eat respect for all American’s that at the time would have been considered liberal. However, I found the final scene to be more self-affirmation or denial than a record of inclusiveness in the proto-American state. I don’t have an issue with that, I even welcome the aspiration, but I am surprised that you subscribed to it so willingly.

    For the record, and despite being a memeber of the losing team, I enjoyed the film. But then I am a sucker for these big adventures.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/06/2012 to 7:50 am

    Rod – You’re right that the film has an episodic quality that probably needed a little more stitching together. I’m so used to seeing it in Ford films, however, that it didn’t bother me. I agree that the Martins lacked nuance of character, but again, that was Ford’s tendency, to paint with a broad brush. I thought the Technicolor was great, personally, and really enjoyed a number of scenes as subverting the picture postcard – for example, the landscape punctuated by one homestead after another going up in flames.

    GOM – I liked that Colbert was cast against type, something Ford plays with when she goes to the fort for the first time wearing a Bo Peep outfit. I thought her earnest, hard-working qualities came through as the experience of working alongside Gil during a war matured her.

    Van – Ford has always been jarring to me for his oddly placed humor. Pilgrimage, a serious WWI melodrama, has a very peculiar middle act with the strangest humor. I found this film less humorous in the Ford way than others, but yes, the bed scene is so amazing!

    Jeremy – It’s not a matter of subscribing to an ideal and blinding oneself to the truth. I think of Ford’s final scene as a reminder of the ideals of the country, not propaganda that the country is living its ideals. It’s a hope for a more equal union, in my opinion.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/06/2012 to 7:53 am

    Cheryl – Ford’s ensemble work is almost without equal. I have seen his films give more depth to more characters, or paint them with a little finer brush. He doesn’t do that in this film, just piles a lot of people into the frame and lets the actors fill them up. It is a weakness of the film, in my opinion, because he has done better, and Rod may be right that the suits were standing on his neck. But not a big enough weakness for me to give it a less enthusiastic review.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    5th/06/2012 to 10:08 pm

    Marilyn, I’ve always had a fondness for this film, even while concurring with the ensemble disclaimer that ultimately prevent the film from achieving the first-rank in the Ford pantheon. But it does push close, and the beautiful and enthusiastic review you pen here most exquisitely and engagingly is fully warranted. The Technicolor is lovely, especially in the sequence when Fonda is pursued by Indians through forests and moorland at sunrise. There are few significant films made about that time period even through the present, and DRUMS offers up some indelible images. I know some say Colbert was miscast, but I agree with you on the chemistry between she and Fonda, and the interplay you offer commendations on between Oliver and Bond is dead-on. Ford’s attention to detail throughout is astonishing. I understand William Faulkner worked on this screenplay without credit.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/06/2012 to 10:35 pm

    Sam – I wanted to mention the running scene, which brought me back to my viewing of Atanarjuat, a very pleasant comparison for me with more than a few echoes to this film. I read on IMDb of Faulkner’s involvement, which was a nice surprise.

  • michaelgsmith spoke:
    15th/06/2012 to 9:20 am

    Terrific review of an underrated film in the Ford canon. I’m glad you touched on Ford’s depiction of the fragility and harshness of pioneer life, which comes across in an almost documentary-like fashion, and also Edna May Oliver’s amazing performance.

    Incidentally, did you watch this with the commentary track by Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo? It’s probably my favorite commentary track ever because of Kirgo’s contribution. Her blend of knowledge about this period in American history and her knowledge of the production of the film is incredible and she puts it all across in a manner both casual and enthusiastic. Now that’s someone I’d like to have a beer with.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/06/2012 to 10:04 am

    Thanks, Michael. No, I saw it broadcast on TCM. No commentary track except Robert Osbourne’s intro and outro.

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