Director John Ford is synonymous with the western genre, especially his films with John Wayne over a legendary career. One of Ford’s more underrated flicks covers a time in American history that hasn’t received much in the way of attention in films, the American Revolution. Oh, and it was released the same year as Ford’s iconic Stagecoach. Overshadowed much? Here’s 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk.
It’s 1776 in colonial New York and newlyweds Gil (Henry Fonda) and Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert) are heading to their new home in the wilderness in the Mohawk Valley. The American Revolution is in its early stages, and though the main fighting between the American and British armies seems far away, the conflict still reaches the isolated community of Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley. As they start their lives together, starting a family and building a farm from the ground up, Gil and Lana and their neighbors must protect themselves against Torries and their Indian allies.
‘Mohawk’ was a family favorite growing up, so it’s always fun to go back and revisit a movie I watched countless times as a kid. It holds up, an entertaining, well-told story that manages to do a lot in its 103-minute run-time. An absolute stunner visually — with filming locations in Utah standing in for colonial New York — with colors popping in each scene (Gil’s green shirt, Lana’s blue dress), and a score from Alfred Newman moving the action along with each passing scene. The key though is rather obvious…the two leads.
With a story that covers a ton of ground (maybe too much in a relatively short film), you’ve got to be invested with the characters. Fonda and Colbert are perfectly cast together, Gil an able frontiersman and farmer, Lana, his beautiful wife and a city girl unaccustomed to life in the settlements but who loves her husband so much she goes along with the movie. There is a straightforward, very believable chemistry between the duo, both Colbert and Fonda breathing some life into familiar characters that could have been stereotypes, cardboard cutouts in the hands of lesser actors. You genuinely like this young couple trying to carve their lives out of the wilderness. Two excellent lead performances.
In an Oscar-nominated part, Edna May Oliver is a scene-stealer as Mrs. McKlennar, a wealthy, sassy widow who takes the Martins in for help around her farm. Feisty, hard-headed, intelligent and not putting up with any BS, Mrs. McKlennar breathes life into each and every scene she’s in, both dramatic and those scenes with a lighter touch. Also look for villainous John Carradine, Arthur Shields, Francis Ford (John’s brother), Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Chief Big John Tree, Jack Pennick, Jessie Ralph, Eddie Collins and Roger Imhof in key supporting parts. Bond is a fun, boisterous presence (as always) and Imhof is excellent as General Herkimer, an aging officer who’s gained the respect of the militia.
A lot to recommend here. There’s a big, wide-open quality to ‘Mohawk,’ the Utah locations proving to be a key character. You truly get the sense of being alone, of being removed from the rest of the world. It’s what these first settlers truly faced, a dangerous life with constant threats in all directions. A scene with an Indian war party raiding the community is intense and uncomfortable, Seneca warriors running through the woods after fleeing settlers. Ford also does some of his best work not in action scenes, but moving monologues of characters talking about an off-screen battle. Cheaper, and just as effective!
There are some slower moments here and there in the first 50 minutes. ‘Mohawk’ is at its strongest when dealing with Gil and Lana, Mrs. McKlennar and of course, the Revolution. It is at its absolute strongest in the final 30 minutes when the Deerfield settlers fort up and are attacked by a large Indian/Tory force. An extended chase scene with Gil racing ahead of three pursuing warriors is exhilarating, a beautifully-cut sequence. There are plenty of those moments sprinkled throughout. A gem for many audiences. Highly recommended.
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): *** 1/2 /****