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Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)


Drums Along the Mohawk is the least well-known but arguably strongest of director John Fordís three 1939 features (Young Mr. Lincoln and Stagecoach were the others). Fordís first color film, it belies his famous lack of affinity for the format, although more of the visual splendor here has to do with the contrast between the horizontal plains and the vertical forests than the hues used. In typical Fordian style, the focus is on the building of community against terrible odds; this time the setting is New Yorkís Mohawk Valley in the 1770s. Still, among the diverse personalities that make up this motley society a mindset prevails. Duty leads to detachment, as is typical in Ford, and there are sterling examples here of resolute stoicism triumphing over hysteria. Most notable is a scene in which a delirious Fonda returns home from battle while Colbert, struggling to hold back her emotions implores him, ďDarling, donít talk about it!Ē This same theme is flipped over along gender lines many times throughout the film, even motoring the comic scenes, such as when Colbertís character is about to give childbirth and the men scoff at a screaming woman only become a bundle of nervous energy themselves. Character actress Edna May Oliver (Oscar-nominated here) plays a straight talking old biddy and perhaps epitomizes this pragmatic outlook. The natives might burn down her house, but sheíll be damned if sheís giving up her bed.


If Drums Along the Mohawk has a liability, itís that the action, at least until the climactic sequence in which Fondaís character outruns a pack of natives, is of a secondary concern. Although the unique backdrop sets this film apart from Fordís most famous ones, it is in many respects typical of his mature work, which limits the sense of surprise for those who know it well. Its revelations feel like foregone conclusions at times. This isnít to say that they lack power, however. The theme of community, so central to Fordís oeuvre, takes on a deeply patriotic resonance in the filmís final moments, as the battle-scarred pioneers of the region, by no means supporters of the Revolutionary cause, see the new American flag in a fresh light. It makes for a moment that dares you to mock it yet one that works, saluting Native American and all, because we have borne witness to the struggle that has come before.



Jeremy Heilman