Program Notes: Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Director John Ford had a terrific year in 1939.

One of his films from that year, Stagecoach, was instantly recognized as a classic and was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. Plus, it turned around the career of a middling cowboy actor named John Wayne, who thereafter was one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.

Another Ford effort from ’39, Young Mr. Lincoln (with Henry Fonda excelling as the future president), is recognized as one of the finest pieces of Americana ever captured on celluloid.

Given the stratospheric acclaim directed at those two landmarks, it’s not unusual that Ford’s third film from ’39, Drums Along the Mohawk, often gets overlooked.

Which is a real shame, since it’s a strong effort that dovetails seamlessly with Ford’s recurring theme of what it means to be an American.

Film Screening:
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
Saturday, Mar. 8 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

In addition, it was Ford’s first Technicolor film, and right out of the gate he excelled at capturing brilliant, vibrant images. In fact, he dismissed color as ridiculously easy to work with when compared to black-and-white.

Based on Walter Edmonds’ bestselling novel (it’s still a great read), Drums centers on the Revolutionary War as it was fought on the frontier, with Yankee settlers battling Indian tribes. The Indians have been convinced by the British that as an independent nation, Americans would waste no time in sweeping westward and seizing tribal land, and that their best interests are to be found by siding with the redcoats.

That’s the story’s background. But the real meat of the yarn lies in the relationship of and Gil and Lana Martin, newlyweds carving a life out of the wilderness.

Lana (Claudette Colbert) is a city girl, raised in gentility and unprepared for the rigors of the frontier. Meanwhile Gil (Fonda, again) is at home with the rough-and-tumble settlers and friendly Indians who inhabit their neck of upstate New York. For a while it looks as though their marriage will fail – especially when their homestead is burned in an Indian raid.

That the couple endures is due in large part to the influence of a horse-faced, well-to-do widow (Edna May Oliver), who adopts Lana as her unofficial daughter and gives the homeless couple an outbuilding in which to live. Oliver – whose clipped speaking style and dour visage were familiar to audiences from her appearances in classic adaptations like David Copperfield, Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, and Pride and Prejudice – was nominated for best supporting actress for her work here as a tart-tongued old bird with a soft heart.

Of course there are other regulars from the Ford repertory stable in evidence: Burly Ward Bond as a buckskinned hunter, Arthur Shields as the local preacher, John Carradine as a one-eyed British spy, Russell Simpson as the local sawbones, and Francis Ford (the director’s brother) as a crazed old hermit a few bullets short of a full load.

Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Fox, worried about the movie. Revolutionary War films almost never made money, and he urged Ford to steer clear of the usual patriotic speeches: “We should see the personal struggle of two people to conquer the land and make a home for themselves. And we should see what they have to go through to accomplish this.”

And that’s exactly what Ford delivered, created a fully-detailed world filled with dances, meals, military drills, weddings, funerals, births, and lots of communal suffering and joy – culminating in a hair-raising siege of a log fortress where the settlers have taken shelter.

It all adds up to a sort of agrarian creation myth, this idea of young America as a society of yeoman farmers with a plow in one hand and a flintlock rifle in the other.

Drums was shot in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. Ford loved location work; his leading lady did not.

Colbert already had an Oscar (for It Happened One Night) and felt left out of Ford’s good-old-boy gang. Perhaps she put on airs. In any case, she hated her rural accommodations. And she was a stickler about how she was presented on the screen, believing that her face was difficult to light and photograph. She was particularly obsessed with never turning the right side of her face to the camera.

Ford must have rolled his eyes.

But in the end Drums Along the Mohawk is a small triumph: unpretentious, full of human dignity, delivering non-abrasive patriotism and plenty of thrills and emotion.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Westerns”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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