June 06, 2007

Review of Drums Along the Mohawk

Drums Along the MohawkDrums Along the Mohawk is a 1939 John Ford film starring Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda and Edna May Oliver. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Edna May Oliver) and Best Cinematography (Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon).

In the movie, Henry Fonda played pioneer settler Gil Martin, with Claudette Colbert as his wife Magdalena "Lana" Martin.

The plot was based on an historical novel of the American Revolution written by Walter D. Edmonds. Published in 1936 and extremely popular, it was made into a film in 1939.

The setting is the Mohawk River Valley during the American Revolution, which was subjected to numerous raids by the British, American Tories, and their Iroquois allies. Included in both works is a fictitious representation of the siege of Fort Stanwix.
Drums Along the Mohawk FactsDRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK is John Ford's first film in Technicolor (which recently perfected far richer shadings of color than had previously been possible), and the director uses it to stunning effect. The film stars Henry Fonda as Revolutionary War-era farmer Gilbert Martin, who, in 1776, has returned with his well-born wife, Lana (Claudette Colbert), to his rustic cabin in the increasingly dangerous Mohawk River valley. At first unaccustomed to the harsh physical challenges of frontier life, Lana adjusts to the work at hand and is soon able to help her husband in the fields. Shortly after they learn that the colonies are at war with the British, their farmhouse is attacked and burned to the ground by a party of Tory-led Indians. The feisty Widow McKlennar (Edna May Oliver) provides temporary shelter for the couple, but it's only a matter of time before the Indians launch a more brutal assault. Save for THE QUIET MAN, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK contains the richest passages of pastoral imagery in Ford's entire canon, the visual beauty nearly upstaging the spectacular and terrifying Indian battles. The performances, particularly Oliver (who garnered an Oscar nomination) as the vinegary widow and the superbly stoic Fonda, enable Ford to again demonstrate the heroism and limitations of rugged individualism. The scenes of an Indian prisoner spread-eagled on a wagon and Gilbert's escape are repeated almost exactly in the 1982 dystopian classic THE ROAD WARRIOR.Drums Along the Mohawk ReviewThis, one of four films made by Ford in the space of a year, was his first film in colour, adapted from a 'factually inspired' novel set just before the American Revolution. From this socio-political material Ford distils the story of a young woodsman (Fonda) who brings his city bride out West. Their struggles are set against a Fordian celebration of the pioneer spirit. Full of great moments, it is crowned by the epic sequence in which Fonda, pursued by Indian braves, races to the fort. The final acknowledgement of his victory by his remaining pursuer is a stirring moment.Comment:  This film opens with the sound of war drums. Not a good sign, but its portrayal of Indians turns out to be surprisingly complex. It's certainly more complex than some portrayals done decades later, such as those in The Unforgiven (1960).

Indians appear in three contexts in Drums. Let's look at them:

Blue Back: An Indian stands in a cabin doorway lit in red and announced by a thunderclap. Scary stuff, but this Indian turns out to be one of the good guys.

True, Blue Back's characterization is far from perfect. He's there mainly for comic relief. Perhaps the worst part is how he speaks like a stereotypical Tonto:

  • "Me go hunting. Bring you half deer. Hang outside."
  • "No. Me go now. Come back again, maybe."

  • On the other hand, he has an authentic-sounding name, not a phony one like "Soaring Eagle" or "Brave Bear." And he's a Christian ("As good a Christian as you or me," says Gil). Making him a Christian rather than a "noble savage" who speaks airily of the Great Spirit is an atypical choice.

    Moreover, Blue Back apparently kills the British agent Caldwell at the end. He speaks a line in a Native language, perhaps Mohawk. And he's played by someone who seems to be an Indian: Chief Big Tree.

    The pair of Indians who attack Mrs. McKlennar: Two Indians invade the widow's bedroom while she's in bed. "Burn house fire quick," says one of them, while the other drinks from a jug.

    McKlennar berates them as they set the room on fire and refuses to abandon her heirloom bed. "Filthy drunken rascal," she labels one of them, and "crazy horse thieves." She's so forceful that she cows the pair into submission. Rather than harm her, they save her, carrying her and the bed to safety.

    Again, we see a mix of stereotypes and non-stereotypes. The Indians begin as drunken savages but redeem themselves by acting humanely. They're not pure evil.

    The rest of the Indians: Hordes of Indians whoop and burn the settlers' homes. They attack the fort and when they catch a scout, they crucify and burn him alive. These Indians have no individuality; they're a savage mass of destruction.

    The settlers treat them thusly with a series of epithets:

  • "Sons of Belial"
  • "Greasy devils"
  • "Filthy painted heathens"

  • The one saving grace is that they're shown following the British agent's orders at least once. This implicitly acknowledges that the Indians weren't just rampaging because it was their nature. No, they allied themselves with the Americans or the British for strategic reasons. They shrewdly calculated where the advantage lay and acted accordingly.

    I also credit the movie for its extended anti-war scene. Lana waits desperately for Gil to appear as a line of injured, weary soldiers straggles by. When Gil finally shows up, he talks about how warfare is so much worse than one imagines. A roomful of injured veterans, one of whom requires amputation, reinforces the point. It's a remarkable bit considering this movie was made in the run-up to World War II.

    Overall, I liked Drums better than the similar The Last of the Mohicans. Its portrayal of Indians isn't as bad as some of the Westerns I've seen. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

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