As remarkable as 1939 is in the history of film, there is only one director who accomplished a hat trick that year. Iconic Western director John Ford crafted three films in that 12 month period which accomplished feats that any other director would take a lifetime to achieve. He re-invented–and defined– a genre with Stagecoach, his poignant character study disguised as a Western. He infused life, heart and humor into history with his poetic biopic Young Mr. Lincoln. And he released his most financially successful film of the year, the Technicolor war epic Drums Along the Mohawk starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, which is perhaps the best film ever made about that war.
Yet while Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln have endured as much-beloved masterpieces, Drums remains bafflingly little known. But in a new Blu-ray release from Twilight Time, the film gets the loving attention that it so richly deserves. Ford’s painterly palette is so striking, so richly textured, one could dedicate an entire post to it alone. This is a decadent Technicolor feast that, with this new Blu-ray transfer, truly rivals Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz for their crowns as Technicolor’s crowning achievements.
If you balk at that it’s because you haven’t seen this film. Ford’s exquisite compositions are served by Ray Rennahan’s cinematography–every scene could be a Turner landscape. The only reason Rennahan didn’t win his Academy Award nomination for Drums is because he won instead for his Gone with the Wind nod. By 1939, and in its immediate following years, few directors held such an inherent pictorial mastery of the artform as Ford: His command of color was inevitable as made evident in this, his first color picture. I’m just gonna say it: Drums Along the Mohawk is what makes the exquisite beauty of Ford’s The Searchers possible.
But this is a John Ford film, so the startling color isn’t the only reason to watch, it’s merely the icing on the cake.
This endearing historical drama is the story of two newlywed homesteaders in the Mohawk Valley. Colbert plays the exceptionally beautiful daughter of an aristocratic Albany family who marries the unnecessarily handsome Fonda, a simple frontiersman. They are New York colonials at the threshold of war with England, and their simple livelihood of ploughing and cultivating the land is thwarted by skirmishes–and then battles–instigated by the loyalist Tories (led by John Carradine) who have recruited a tribe of Native Americans to do their fighting.
On this always sensitive issue of Native American portrayal on film, it is interesting to note that Ford cast real Native Americans, eliminating the embarrassing brownface that would come to proliferate mid-Century American Westerns. (Of which Ford himself is guilty.) The stereotypes are of course still obvious, the “good Indian” being a converted Christian, but at the very least, Ford’s casting is to his credit.
Fonda and Colbert’s home is burned and they hire themselves out to work for a wealthy landlady (Edna May Oliver in a rollicking, Oscar nominated performance), whose good-natured sarcastic wit helps give them a renewed sense of security. The security doesn’t last long, as Fonda and Colbert, along with their close knit rural community, are thrown into the Revolution. The men march off to join Washington’s Continental Army while the women, literally, hold the fort. The strongest men in the film, in fact, are women. Edna May Oliver is the glue of the community, not a man. And Colbert transforms from frightened and homesick to a hardworking frontierswoman who, by the end of the film, is stronger than her husband. The war becomes real when the dead and wounded come trudging back home in a dramatic, torrential downpour. Fonda and the other survivors (including a delightful Ward Bond) again find themselves under attack and they community seeks shelter at a nearby fort. When the supplies and ammunition runs low, it becomes clear someone must make a break to the neighboring fort for reinforcements. To save the community, Fonda volunteers. He makes a break for it, and is chased by the attacking Indians in a magnificent foot race across the majestic New England countryside. It is the film’s touchstone moment: the image of Fonda’s silhouette against sweeping skies of deep reds and purples and yellows, with a band of Native Americans in hot pursuit, remains one of the most impressive in Ford’s career.
Which is really saying something.
Drums lacks a smooth linear structure and critics are all too happy to point out that it feels more like a disjointed series of strung-together set pieces than a solid story. But the film is about the Revolutionary War which was fought in much the same fashion–what Twilight Time’s Julie Kigro calls “a war of vignettes,” noting that the war’s episodic nature is probably reason there has yet to be a definitive feature film of the war. The best attempts are indeed TV movies: John Adams and April Morning. Both are epsidoc, as is Drums, as was the Revolution. Aside from that, the film is most definitely John Ford: it is a film about the survival of community and way of life. A theme that would be more fully explored in his next film, The Grapes of Wrath.
Also notable is the fact that three of the four films helmed by Ford in 1939 star Henry Fonda. (Wrath was released in 1940, but production began hot on the heels of Drums.) The man is an ideal Ford actor. He reacts to adversity with restraint and dignity, but his fight is no less bitter than Ford’s most famous actor, John Wayne. Like Montgomery Clift a decade later, Fonda says more by what is unsaid and unseen. We don’t see him fight in the Battle of Bloody Creek in Drums. Ford had intended to shoot the battle, but realized he didn’t have to. Instead, in an inspired piece of direction, Ford had a wounded Fonda lie against a wall as Colbert nurses him. Fonda is in shock, delirious, and rambling, unaware that his wife even tending to him. Fonda tells us the story of the battle, his piercing blue eyes staring off into the distance (foreshadowing his legendary performance as Tom Joad in Wrath). By not showing us the blood and guts of one of the worst battles of the Revolution, but rather the psychological trauma of it, Ford says more about war in a two minute scene than others take an entire movie to accomplish.
The Twilight Time release also includes the full-length documentary Becoming John Ford by Nick Redman, which provides an in-depth examination of Ford’s work at Fox and his relationship with power producer Darryl F. Zanuck.
An excellent presentation of an underrated gem, Drums Along the Mohawk belongs on the shelves of cinephiles everywhere.