Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Drums Along the Mohawk

DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK    C-                   
USA  (103 mi)  1939  d:  John Ford

You’d think this was James Fenimore Cooper territory, and historically and geographically it is something of a lesser substitute, adapted from a popular Walter D. Edmonds historic novel taking place exclusively in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York.  Ford’s first film shot in Technicolor, this is something of a prelude to the eventual victory of the Revolutionary War, a glimpse of what was at that time seen as a hard life on the frontier, hunting and farming mostly, where grizzled, backwoods types fill the landscape along with other hard-nosed Christian families, where the threat of Indians and the unsettled affairs of establishing a new nation add an element of uncertainty into their lives.  The film was a commercial success, largely due to the popularity of two big name stars, where a shocking lack of chemistry exists straightaway in newlyweds Lana and Gilbert Martin, the rich and pampered city girl, Claudette Colbert, who overacts in every scene, crying and fainting often, and the morally upright and ever understated Henry Fonda, in a film sandwiched between playing Abraham Lincoln in YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939) and Tom Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940).  This is one of Ford’s weaker Westerns, as the Revolutionary War has never played well in motion pictures, and this is no exception, becoming a grim, costume melodrama shot largely in the outskirts of Utah.  The on-location scenery works well, where cinematographers Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan received Academy Award nominations, but the story itself is suffocatingly restricted, often told from the women’s point of view while the men are away at war, where one grows weary of Lana’s overreaching sense of drama, but more importantly, the demonized and stereotypical depiction of Indians as savages is overdramatized, largely because there’s no British presence to speak of, so the settlers are continually fighting Indians instead of the British, who never fire a single shot.     

The film has a heavy handed tone of black and white moral certainty throughout, where the Revolutionary War is seen as a battle between God fearing Christians and heathen Indians, giving it an annoyingly self-righteous tone, where there’s a single British character in the movie, John Carradine wearing an eye patch, a Tory who mobilizes the Indians against the “Americans,” seen early in the film burning their farms and their crops.  The one friendly Indian, Chief Big Tree (the model for the Indian head nickel) as the character Blue Back, is a Christian convert who takes on all the “Uncle Tom” characteristics, speaking that barely decipherable Navajo English, and is largely used for ill-advised comic relief, offering a few “Hallelujahs” in inappropriate places, also the gift of a whipping switch for Gilbert to beat his woman to keep her in line.  So if you can get past the Bible thumping, fundamentalist Holy War aspect of the film, which is truly a gross distortion of history, much like Victor Fleming’s similarly embellished GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) made that same year melodramatically distorts the Civil War, there are familiar Ford characteristics that play out well.  The most important aspect of living in the wilderness is the portrayal of a sense of community, where displaying courage under fire is seen as a distinctly American trait, right alongside helping neighbors by clearing their fields and collectively rebuild, sheltering the injured and the needy, where Fonda’s notable humility is particularly appealing.  Often forced to take protection from a nearby military post, the theme of the film is expressed by General Herkimer (Roger Imhof), “This is our land and it’s worth fighting for.”  Rounding up all the able bodied men, they march off to fight in General Washington’s army, presumably motivated by duty and faith, leaving their families behind to endure the insufferable consequence of not knowing, having to sit and wait, where we only hear about the war’s development when the wounded men return, where losing 400 out of 600 men is the price to pay for victory.  

What differs here from typical Ford films is the camera doesn’t follow the action, where it’s not so much about the war itself or the men, his usual subjects, but is a portrait of the evolving transformation of Lana from a hysterically out-of-place rich girl into a highly capable frontier woman.  Granted, Colbert is probably not the right woman for the role, but Ford has a fondness for her near perfect, pin-up style close ups, where he’s likely a firm believer that soldiers carry a picture of the woman they love in their pockets as a reminder of what they’re fighting for.  The woman behind Lana’s transformation is a no frills, tough as nails frontier widow played by Edna May Oliver, also nominated for Best Supporting Actress, who is easily the best thing in the movie.  Her ornery defiance is both laudatory and comical, especially when she refuses to be removed from her bed when her home is invaded and burned by Indians, forcing them to carry her bed (with her in it) to safety.  She leads a cast where many secondary characters exhibit plenty of eccentric personality.  While there is an impressive Ford-like assault of the fort, featuring cannon fire and hand-to-hand combat, Gilbert interestingly decides to make a run for it, believing he can outrun any Indian, turning this into a strange endurance run through the forests and empty landscapes of the wilderness followed closely behind by three Mohawk Indians.  His perseverance brings needed reinforcements and helps turn the tide not just for this community, but for the birth of a new nation.  Just as Lana is initially seen wearing gigantic bonnets and elaborate, fashion inspired dresses, turning afterwards into farmer attire, and later even wears a Revolutionary War army coat with a musket in her hand, the church inspired community is also shown, to the music of “The Star Spangled Banner,” recognizing the significance of the first American flag, and in a highly dramatized, ceremonial final gesture, places it high atop the church, a premonition of Manifest Destiny.      

As it turns out, nearly 13,000 Native Indians fought with the British, most coming from the Iroquois tribes, where the Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga nations also sided with the British.  Because the settlers built a fort directly on the banks of the Mohawk River right in the heart of their territory, the Mohawk tribe also sided with the British.  After the American Revolution, most moved northward into Canada, again fighting against the United States in the War of 1812, where they continue to live in settlements in Southeastern Canada and New York State.  Among the most notable Mohawk Indians are Hiawatha, the subject of the epic 1855 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Full text of "The song of Hiawatha", writer Pauline Johnson, artist Shelly Niro, and musician Robbie Robertson from The Band. 


  1. The film shows Tory and British regulars beseiging the fort. Not just Caldwell. Far from racism, the realism of the Iroquois ferocity and penchant for torture is a lesson you seemed to have missed in your studies of colonial America.

  2. Well you can't superimpose into the film what isn't there, and there are no other British characters in the listed cast except Caldwell, so they are all but absent in terms of character representation. While we hear about British troop movement, not one fires a single shot throughout the entire film, including the attack of the fort. If they were there, all I saw onscreen were Indians. And yes, the presentation of the "Uncle Tom" Indian Blue Back couldn't be more racist, where he's reduced to pure stereotype. As far as the Indian hostility, the film doesn't do a good job explaining why they are attacking the settlers, as they certainly had their reasons (as I attempted to explain in the final review paragraph), but this is not in the film. Instead they are depicted as immoral and underhanded because of their alliance with Caldwell, demonized as a foul enemy purely for dramatic, not historical purposes, turning this into a Holy War between self-righteous Christian settlers and amoral, heathen Indians. That's the film John Ford put on the screen, little more than a portrait of jingoistic Americana.