Cast & Crew
Edna May Oliver
In 1776, after marrying Gilbert Martin, Lana "Magdalena" Borst leaves her luxurious home in Albany, New York to set out for her husband's farm in Deerfield, in the perilous territory of the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York. Soon after arriving in Deerfield, Lana is startled by the presence of Gilbert's Indian friend, Blue Back, in their small cabin, and becomes hysterical. Gilbert strikes his new wife to bring her back to her senses, and when Lana insists on returning to Albany, he refuses to go and she decides to stay by his side. Unaccustomed to the rugged conditions, Lana has a hard time adjusting, but soon is working the fields of her farm with her husband. At German Flats, the nearest settlement to Deerfield, Gilbert and Lana meet many of the local residents and learn that the revolution that has followed the signing of the Declaration of Independence has now become a full-scale war, requiring the dispatch of additional troops to Boston. When Indians, led by Tory Caldwell, attack and burn the Martins' farm, Lana faints while fleeing and miscarries her first child. Empty-handed, the Martins turn to the widow McKlennar, who offers them a home and work on her land. Life goes on peacefully until word comes of an impending Indian attack and Gilbert and the other men form a backwoods militia to protect their land. Ill-equipped and ill-trained, the men fight off the attack with their lives and Gilbert returns home, wounded and delirious. Soon after, Lana gives birth to a son and a period of peace ensues until the Indians regroup and attack once more. Seeking refuge in the fort, the men and women fight side-by-side and, in the struggle, Mrs. McKlennar is mortally wounded. When the ammunition runs dangerously low, Joe Boleo goes for reinforcements, but when he is killed, Gilbert takes his place, making a desperate dash through the enemy line and outrunning his pursuers to reach the nearest fort for help. Just as the Indians breech the wall of the fort, Gilbert and the troops arrive to defeat the attackers and restore peace to the valley. With the farm that Mrs. McKlennar gave to them before she died, Gilbert and Lana can now start their lives over.
Edna May Oliver
J. Ronald Pennick
Chief Big Tree
Beulah Hall Jones
Clarence H. Wilson
W. F. Fitzgerald
F. E. Johnson
B. F. Mceveety
H. A. Root
Meta C. Sterne
E. Clayton Ward
Darryl F. Zanuck
Best Supporting Actress
Drums Along the Mohawk on Blu-ray
Newlyweds Gil Martin and Lana Borst (Henry Fonda & Claudette Colbert) take leave of a fancy wedding reception in Albany, and three days later arrive at his tiny cabin in the near-wilderness. Lana is at first appalled at by the primitive conditions and terrified when she meets her first Indian, the friendly Blue Back (Chief Big Tree). Come harvest time Gil's work has produced a crop, and Lana is expecting and happy. Then the Tory officer Caldwell (John Carradine) leads a party of Indians to burn out most of the farmers. The Martins lose everything and must hire on to work for Mrs. McKennar (Edna May Oliver), a well-to-do, outspoken widow. The likelihood of earning back their independence seems even more dubious when the Valley enters the war in earnest. Along with every other man "aged sixteen to sixty", Gil must leave to fight the Redcoats.
Drums Along the Mohawk initially hits us like a 5th Grade textbook come to life, with Lana's palatial Albany home contrasting strongly with the green trees and blue skies of "The West". The place is packed with Ford's stock company of actors -- John Carradine, Russell Simpson, Jack Pennick, Arthur Shields, Ward Bond, Francis Ford. But Ford and screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien keep the drama centered on top-billed Claudette Colbert. Lana leaves home as if heading for a country picnic, and has a rough first couple of nights. The community they join is composed of rowdy frontiersmen who like the freedom of the wild, and transplanted city folk that have brought their customs and biases with them. Lana keeps a cupboard in the corner to hold her wedding gifts. A snooty neighbor tries to one-up her socially: "At home we always ate off of Wedgewood." Yet another woman desperate to maintain her social status is the Captain's wife, who repeatedly identifies herself as "The Captain's Wife." Out here in the sticks, the social pecking order has been replaced by another set of values.
In his later post-war films John Ford would postulate the military family as a kind of social Utopia, but Drums Along the Mohawk presents an America too young to have established set traditions. Hence the repeated shots of Lana looking forward to the horizon, as John Wayne would do in later pictures. She may be waiting for Gil or worrying about Indians, but Ford's low angles give the impression that Lana is gazing into the grand future to come.
Ford's superb compositional pictorialism is in full force here. He expressed strong opinions about the positioning of horizon lines: high in the frame, or low? Many scenes play foreground action against wooded backgrounds as much as a mile or two distant. It may be just a painterly pictorial effect, but the depth effects of rivers and trees stretching away into the distance, suggest a temporal distance as well. The events of the past are as remote as the far-away hills the characters at which the characters gaze. When Lana collapses onto a green field to watch Gil and his troop marching off to battle, down a road disappearing into the distance, it's as if she's at the mercy of history: is Gil already gone forever?
The image of war forcing lovers to part may also have struck a topical nerve in 1939. Were audiences watching Drums Along the Mohawk already preoccupied by the prospect of America entering the European war?
In 'historical' films by most other great directors, the heroes succeed by taking charge of history. Ford's characters are caught up by history, and swept along by it. Gil is a civilian soldier fighting for simple survival, not fervent patriotism. When their new flag is raised, Gil and Lana stare at it without perceiving exactly what it means. Patriotic music swells on the soundtrack, but they exit to return to their work. There's a lot of acreage to be cleared and cultivated between the Mohawk Valley and the Pacific Ocean, and the implication is that Americans will get the job done.
Ford's stars make an attractive, energetic frontier couple. From the moment we see Colbert's broad smile and Fonda's blue eyes, we realize how big a deal Technicolor was at the time; these were definitely two of the Beautiful People. Ford's economy with camera angles may have made him a good choice for the expensive Technicolor process. The director builds drama and suspense without complex cutting. For a movie with little or no action montage -- close combat is only shown at the end -- Drums Along the Mohawk still feels like an action epic. Audiences are thrilled by the proto- The Naked Prey chase scene, in which Gil must outrun three Indian pursuers in a cross-country race for help.
Edna May Oliver steals most of her scenes, and even makes her flirtatious moments with the much younger Ward Bond (!) seem amusing. The properly villainous John Carradine is used sparingly, but would be back the next year with an outstanding, inspiring performance in Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. Arthur Shields' preacher is good for some comic touches and hammy drama; Roger Imhof is excellent as the immigrant German General with bushy eyebrows and a fat belly. The meek, squeaky-voiced Eddie Collins is amusing as the company clerk; Walt Disney may have borrowed his screen persona for a recurring cartoon character. Chief Big John Tree had been in Ford's silent The Iron Horse and would be seen again as an old warrior hoping for peace in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. He's the 'good' Indian, while the enemies fighting for England are faceless savages, pictured more or less the way the Mohawk settlers (invaders?) would see them.
In the 1960s Drums Along the Mohawk was practically considered an educational film. I first saw it in the 4th grade, in B&W. It's an exciting picture that just might make a kid more interested in history. Some moments do need a bit of explanation. One of the proud settlers regarding the fort's new flag is Mrs. McKennar's black housemaid, who may not be freeborn: history tells us that some of the Mohawk Valley pioneers were slave holders, including General Herkimer. But the general charge against John Ford as a sexist director really doesn't hold for the films he made prior to his WW2 Navy service. The narrative is seen almost completely through Lana Martin's experience. A wedding, childbirth and the struggle to establish a home get equal stress with scenes of combat. Ford would soon win back-to-back Oscars with stories about established families crumbling under cruel social pressures, but this more optimistic show is about a family fighting just to survive. Its most telling personal moment may be when Lana, after observing her husband taking the time to go watch his baby sleeping in its crib, sits on the stairs and quietly cries for happiness, "O Lord, let this go on forever."
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Drums Along the Mohawk is a real stunner. The older Fox DVD looked pretty good, but this HD encoding must be an all-new restoration referencing original Technicolor elements. Twilight Time was wise to snap it up, even if no discrete score existed to put on an isolated music track. By 1939 3-Strip was no longer experimental, and cameramen Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan can work with a full range of hues and tones. Ms. Colbert must have been thrilled to see herself in such glorious close-ups. We can see how much light the process required when we see fireplace flames that give off little or no light and daytime exterior shadows that are jet-black. Even when standing in direct sunlight, the actors must have had Klieg lights blasting in their faces to fill shadows.
The delicate images fully register the film's many textures, starting with the fabrics of the costumes and extending to the furniture and the wooden cabin interiors. In 1939, these images must have been a feast for the eyes.
With only a trailer as an extra, Twilight Time has seen fit to include a second show, a feature-length documentary. Becoming John Ford uses the comments of numerous critics to tell the story of John Ford's career at the studio, and his mostly excellent creative relationship with studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. Director Nick Redman has directors Walter Hill and Ron Shelton recite words written by Ford and Zanuck, the same approach used for Redman's earlier Oscar-nominated short subject on The Wild Bunch. The show is not afraid to get into personal details, a welcome quality in these days of featurette docus that go no further than Wikipedia for vital research. I was particularly impressed when director-critic Joseph McBride generously credited author Janey Place for her positive feminist criticism of the great director. The docu is academically rewarding as well as entertaining.
Julie Kirgo provides one of her consistently well-written insert essays. On this disc she also contributes a wealth of informative content to a full commentary shared with Nick Redman. Biographical and film-related aspects are well covered, and Ms. Kirgo also devotes a great deal of thoughtful discussion to the film's historical basis. We learn that the Mohawk Valley was indeed a strategic point in the Revolutionary War. Both sides used Indian allies. We also get more of an idea of the scale of the colonial experience. Much of the war was fought in isolated skirmishes, so that large parts of the colonies saw no action or threat. And although Gil and Lana appear to be taking a long journey away from her comfortable home in Albany, their overland trip may have taken them less than two hundred miles -- a journey that today can be made in a few hours.
By Glenn Erickson
Drums Along the Mohawk on Blu-ray
Drums Along the Mohawk
Drums Along the Mohawk is an exciting and fascinating depiction of a period in history rarely represented on film; it takes place just prior to the Revolutionary War in the late 18th century. It even fits readily into Ford's Western repertoire, but roughly a century earlier, when the frontier was still just the western areas of the original colonies. Fonda plays a young pioneer farmer who brings his city-bred bride (Claudette Colbert in an uncharacteristic role) to the wild Mohawk Valley in upstate New York. Their efforts to endure the hardship of frontier life are complicated by marauding Indians, stirred up by ruthless British commanders bent on undermining the growing independence movement in the colonies. Left homeless after one brutal attack, the newlyweds take refuge with a spunky widow (the comical Edna May Oliver) until further attacks force them and their neighbors to take refuge in a fort. With the settlers facing annihilation by an Indian siege, Fonda makes a break to seek reinforcements, providing one of the film's most thrilling scenes as he outruns a band of Indians to a nearby fort.
Although set in western New York, Drums Along the Mohawk was actually shot primarily in Utah, where weather conditions (including relentless rain and constantly changing light) initially caused serious delays and budget overruns, much to the anxiety of producer Darryl F. Zanuck and his production managers. Budget issues were complicated by such factors as the need to cut miles of roads into the 11,000-foot-high location and to construct a large fort and several frontier homes. Props and costumes were not readily available since the producing studio, Fox, had not specialized in historical films on this epic scale before or set in this time period. Instead of reproducing the outmoded flintlock muskets used at the time of the Revolution, 100 of them were located in Ethiopia, purchased and transported to Utah for the production. Tensions with the studio bosses were not helped any by Ford's insistence on having a piano transported from a Utah town to the remote location.
The location shooting paid off, however, in handsome color cinematography by Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan, who received Academy Award nominations for their work. (The other Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, went to Edna May Oliver as the defiant matriarch Mrs. McKlennar.) This was the first color film for both Ford and Colbert, who photographed well despite her initial fears about how she would look in the Technicolor process. Fonda had already gained Technicolor experience with Jesse James (1939), but he did have to make one concession to Ford's concept by growing his hair unfashionably long for the 1930s to achieve a more authentic eighteenth century colonial look.
As production wound on and delays increased, it became apparent that there would be major problems shooting the key scene of a major battle fought against the British in 1777. Zanuck badgered Ford daily with telegrams demanding to know what preparations had been made for the scene, which was scheduled for three weeks shooting. To solve the dilemma, Ford simply sat Fonda down, trained a camera on him and asked him questions about the battle. Fonda improvised brilliantly in character, describing the entire battle in the minutest detail. When they were done, Ford instructed the editors to cut out his questions and run the scene as one long take of the character relating his experience at war a handy way to skirt the production issue and one of the film's more effective scenes.
Drums Along the Mohawk is one of three films Fonda made based on the writing of Walter D. Edmonds, who specialized in historical novels set in his native New York state. The other two were The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935) and Chad Hanna (1940).
Director: John Ford
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Sonya Levien, Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Walter D. Edmonds
Cinematography: Bert Glennon, Ray Rennahan
Editing: Robert Simpson
Art Direction: Richard Day, Mark-Lee Kirk
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Henry Fonda (Gil Martin), Claudette Colbert (Lana Martin), Edna May Oliver (Mrs. McKlennar), John Carradine (Caldwell), Ward Bond (Adam Hartman).
by Rob Nixon
Drums Along the Mohawk
Drums Along the Mohawk
The movie fares better in the first category. Ford's many frontier tales included, most famously, the Wild West era (My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers). But he also made one of the definitive movies about 20th-century westward migration (The Grapes of Wrath), and Drums Along the Mohawk is an all-too-rare movie set during the American Revolution. Drums Along the Mohawk is not in the league of any of those other movies, but it certainly gains value when considered as another chapter in Ford's ongoing chronicle of frontier life.
In the cinematic glory year of 1939, Ford made this right after the same year's Stagecoach, which started his fruitful collaboration with John Wayne, and Young Mr. Lincoln, which started his long partnership with Henry Fonda. Drums Along the Mohawk is the second of six Ford movies Fonda would star in between 1939 and 1948. He plays Gil Martin, a young farmer whose 1776 wedding to well-to-do "city girl" Lana (Claudette Colbert) opens the movie. The pair moves to the rugged Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, where they and the area's other settlers struggle to get their farms running, build families and, for much of the movie, fight the Revolutionary War.
There are many recognizable Ford touches in the movie. Familiar Ford supporting players Ward Bond and John Carradine appear, the sense of community among the characters is palpable and corny comic relief, for which Ford often has a weakness, abounds, especially when men's reaction to childbirth or alcohol comes up. Despite the cringes wrought by the cliched humor, these are the good things about Drums Along the Mohawk. Fonda is modest and determined without being overly earnest and the supporting cast is colorful, especially Edna May Oliver - the horse-faced sourpuss so often lampooned in 1930s cartoons - as a crusty widow who befriends the newlyweds. You also feel the mutual sacrifice that ties the valley's characters together, whether through aiding each other on farms, serving side-by-side in battle as the local militia or helping out on the homefront. The movie is also a very scenic, early three-strip Technicolor picture, restored to pristine quality for its otherwise no-frills DVD. When Lana marvels about how beautiful the land is when she sees it for the first time, you feel it, too. (The movie can be too pretty, though. Colbert, who's asked to cry every five or 10 minutes, does not have one of her best roles here and, like Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain, she may go through hell and back, but she's always perfectly made up.)
The nice touches bump up against one very ugly touch: Why does Drums Along the Mohawk turn the American Revolution into a holy war? Obviously, religion played a large part in the lives of this country's early settlers, but Drums Along the Mohawk portrays the Revolutionary War as, above all, a battle pitting Christian settlers versus "heathen" Indians. And the Christian settlers are sometimes annoyingly self-righteous because of this. Amazingly, there is exactly one British character in the movie, the Tory agent played by Carradine (in cape and eyepatch, no less), and he instigates several raids on the settlers by Indian warriors, who burn down settlers¿ homes and storm the local fort. Although the farmers' militia goes off to unseen battles and we hear dialogue about British troop movements, you never see a single Brit fire a musket in the entire movie, while talk about the political principles behind the war is limited to one very brief moment.
Ford's later Ford Apache famously has one character tout the importance of sometimes "printing the legend" instead of fact, but it's hard to see how that notion does any justice to Drums Along the Mohawk, based on a novel by Walter D. Edmonds. In Ford's westerns set in the late 1800s, there was at least some rationale for demonizing the Indians. They were at least the genuine adversary in those tales - though even Ford eventually made the relationship between whites and Indians more complex in The Searchers and treated Indians with great sympathy in 1964's Cheyenne Autumn. Drums Along the Mohawk doesn't just fudge the facts by downplaying the British role in the war. Sonya Levien and Lamar Trotti's handles the Indian seen very lazily; most are just faceless threats, and the only Indian who's an actual character is an "Uncle Tom"-like convert to Christianity who¿s treated as comic relief.
So if you're approaching Drums Along the Mohawk for the first time, expect it to be interesting within the context of John Ford's entire career. Don't expect it to match up to his best movies or be a definitive Revolutionary War movie.
For more information about Drums Along the Mohawk, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Drums Along the Mohawk, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman
Drums Along the Mohawk
Any man failing to report to duty will be promptly hanged. Amen.- Reverend Rosenkrantz
O Almighty God, hear us, we beseech Thee, and bring succor and guidance to those we are about to bring to Your divine notice. First we are thinking of Mary Walaber. She is only 16 years old, but she is keeping company with a soldier from Fort Dayton. He's a Massachusetts man, and Thou knowest no good can come of that.- Reverend Rosenkrantz
This film marked director John Ford's first Technicolor film, and followed Twentieth Century-Fox's successful teaming of producer Darryl Zanuck, director John Ford, screenwriter Lamar Trotti and star Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.5256). According to early 1937 Hollywood Reporter news items, Fox initially set Warner Baxter for the male lead and listed Henry King as the director. A studio press release noted that Nancy Kelly was originally set for the female lead and that Don Ameche was considered for the role that was eventually given to Fonda. The press release reported that Ameche was unable to take the assignment because he was tied up with Hollywood Cavalcade (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.1956). An August 1939 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that novice actress Linda Darnell was pulled from the cast of the film because Zanuck had decided that she would be better suited for a role as society girl in Public Debutante No. 1 (see below), a film in which she did not finally appear. Although the film credits Ward Bond with the role of Adam Hartman, reviews erroneously list his character as "Adam Helmer."
A March 1937 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that William Faulkner was signed to write the screenplay for the film, however material contained at the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection at the UCLA Theater Arts Library suggests that Faulkner's sole contribution was that of an early treatment of the story. A modern source notes that the final film was almost entirely devoid of Faulkner's contributions. The UCLA files also indicate that Zanuck criticized Sonya Levien's first draft of the continuity, dated December 2, 1938, for having too much emphasis on the epic nature of the story rather than the more personal tale of Gilbert and Lana, which he preferred. In April 1939, Zanuck, after having read Lamar Trotti's draft of the screenplay, argued against the script's "flag waving patriotism" and reasserted his desire to see the clash of personalities between Lana and Gilbert more fully developed. According to the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Library, Zanuck purchased the rights to the film for $25,000.
According to Hollywood Reporter, some scenes were shot at Cedar City, Utah, where 350 local residents were used as extras. A biography of Ford notes that filming began without a completed script, and that rain and unpredictable lighting conditions in Utah's Wasatch Mountains forced many production delays. The biography also indicates that Ford, pressed for time at the Utah location, decided to forgo filming a large-scale battle scene, which had been scheduled for a three-week shoot, and instead used footage taken from an unscripted description of the battle spoken by Fonda. The sequence was taken from an improvised conversation between Ford and Fonda that had been filmed and later edited with Ford's questions removed. The result was a continuous shot of Fonda giving a descriptive narration of the battle scene. Modern sources add actors Tom Tyler (Morgan) and Noble Johnson (Indian) to the cast, and note that Mae Marsh played a pioneer woman in the film.
Edna May Oliver was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in her role as Mrs. McKlennar. A radio dramatization of Drums Along the Mohawk, featuring Colbert and Fonda, aired on Kate Smith's radio program on November 3, 1939.
Released in United States 1939
Released in United States on Video May 1988
Released in United States 1939
Released in United States on Video May 1988