Friday, April 3, 2015

#1,691. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) - The Films of John Ford

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Edna May Oliver

Tag line: "Red-Blooded DRAMA !"

Trivia: Writer William Faulkner penned one of the early treatments for this film

For John Ford, 1939 was a big year. Along with the release of his classic western Stagecoach, he also helmed the equally impressive Young Mr. Lincoln, which marked his first collaboration with actor Henry Fonda. The two would reunite a few months later for Ford's third movie of the year, Drums Along the Mohawk. Set against the backdrop of the America Revolution, Drums Along the Mohawk is equal parts adventure and drama, and even with its superior cast this movie rarely gets the attention it deserves.

Moments after they’re married, Gil Martin (Fonda) and his bride Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert) set off for their new home, a small cabin in the Mohawk Valley of Central New York. Lana, who comes from a well-to-do family in Albany, is none too happy with her new surroundings, and is nearly scared out of her wits by Gil’s Native American friend Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree). Lana eventually settles in, and even helps with the farm work from time to time.

That all changes when Caldwell (John Carradine), a Tory who remains loyal to Britain, raises an army of Seneca Indians and attacks the valley, destroying Gil’s and Lana’s home in the process. To get back on their feet, the two go to work for wealthy widow Mrs. McKlenner (Edna May Oliver), who, along with paying them a decent salary, lets them live in a cozy cabin behind her house.

But when war between the colonies and Great Britain breaks out, Gil is drafted into the local militia. Under the command of Gen. Nicholas Herkimer (Roger Imhof), Gil and his compatriots march into battle, leaving Lana to wonder if she will ever see her husband again.

Inspired by such real-life events as the Battle of Oriskany (an August 1777 skirmish between the colonial army and British Loyalists that proved to be one of the war’s bloodiest engagements), Drums Along the Mohawk is a dramatic, occasionally thrilling look at an early period of American history, a time when even New York state had its share of unsettled land.

Along with his patented attention to detail (the costumes, as well as the set pieces, look 100% genuine), director Ford assembled an excellent cast, all of whom do a fine job bringing this era to life. Fonda and Colbert are strong as the couple at the center of it all, and have a great on-screen chemistry (their love scenes are among the film’s most effective moments). Yet as good as they are, both take a backseat to Edna May Oliver, whose spirited portrayal of Mrs. McKlenner earned the character actress her one and only Academy Award nomination (she lost to Hattie McDaniel, who played Scarlet o’Hara’s loyal maid in Gone With the Wind).

Ford ultimately wasn't able to bring the film’s key sequence, the Battle of Oriskany, to the screen (his plans to shoot the pivotal fight over a three-week period were scrapped when he ran out of time), yet still infuses Drums Along the Mohawk with enough excitement to keep things moving along at a brisk pace. The final scene, when the Indians and their Tory commanders launch a massive assault against the colonial army at Fort Schuyler, is as tense as they come.

It may not have reached the level of some of Ford’s other works (Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers), but Drums Along the Mohawk is a solid an entry in the director’s filmography.

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