Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

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  • directed by John Ford
  • starring Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Edna May Oliver, John Carradine, Ward Bond
  • A newlywed couple fights off Indian attacks to start a farm in upstate New York.

“It seems impossible that people can work as hard as we did for nothing.”

Drums Along the Mohawk was the last of three John Ford films to be released in 1939. Three a year had basically been his average at this point but in 1939 it was a feat made even more impressive when you watch them and realize they are enormous achievements, all revolutionary in their own way.

Though it pounded along with a lot of the same moods, tones, and visuals as one of his westerns, Drums differed by being set a century earlier in the years leading up to the American Revolution. It was a time when the west referred to western upstate New York, and it was clear that Ford was utilizing a lot of the tools and tricks he developed on Stagecoach—confined and almost claustrophobic interiors, expansive exteriors, and a type iconic imagery that borders on the spiritual–to tell the story of the original undeveloped frontier.

Unfortunately this also meant that, and the source material of turmoil between pioneers and the New York Iroquois (a tribe in the middle of a civil war itself with portions on the American and British sides) lent itself to, yet another whitewashing by Ford who presented an enemy in the Iroquois that burned villages, killed innocents, and, according to the film, were acting from a sort of savage need for chaos instead of what it really was, a tribe rebounding from its own violent displacement at the hands of American settlers. It’s always uncomfortable to see the scale tipped into the utter demonization of American Indians in these films and here it’s even more extreme as, if you judge from the film alone, it might as well have been the Indian tribes that were the main enemy in America’s fight for its independence. The British were present, behind every attack was Caldwell pulling the strings, and we hear a lot about the great battles being fought elsewhere between Cornwallis and Washington, but as far as the combat we see, it was the people of Deerfield versus bloodthirsty Indians.

Drums was Ford’s first color film and the on-location settings looked spectacular. It was striking to see a lot of typical western landscape sequences–carriage rides, horse chases, and wide-open plains–but this time full of life, forests, and water. It put a serene and optimistic glow onto this particular story of survival as opposed to the bleak and dusty edge of the west. In a way it had to lean optimistic because the film, more than an accurate account of a colonial New York town in the midst of conflict, was the simple and universal story of Gil and Lana Martin, two young newlyweds in search of happiness and stability for their family. The performances from Henry Fonda all the way to the supporting characters were all great, contributing to a portrayal of the village and the times that was rich, textured, and best of all, believable. But I’d like to focus on two women in the film because I’m left thinking that in the middle of all of the blood, fire, and gunshots, that it was Lana and Mrs. McKlennar, two similar women at different stages in life, that was the main crux of the narrative.

Mrs. McKlennar, the tough and hardened widow played brilliantly by the feisty Edna May Oliver, did a lot in the way of supporting Lana through the many ordeals they both faced. There was a lot Lana could learn from McKlennar since her husband is the type that’s compelled to duty no matter how dangerous. Someday she may be familiar with being a widow and I think it’s this realization that shifts her identity from displaced city girl to functioning frontierswoman.

The character of Lana also had the benefit of a great and unexpected casting choice in Claudette Colbert. I love it when an actor or actress’ life story mirrors their on-screen journey and Colbert, very much a stickler in terms of her appearance in film, was someone that I would never expect to see get down and dirty, in Technicolor no less. Her Lana Martin was horrified upon arriving in such a crude cabin after such a cushy upbringing in Albany, and I can only imagine that Colbert herself had a few of those moments on set in Utah. She did it, however, and she did it really well. Lana was really the only character going through deep changes on screen and it was a monumental moment in Colbert’s career as far as I see it.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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