Drums Along the Mohawk: Review
When one thinks of John Ford one usually thinks of the Calvary and cowboys amidst the great western landscape, and not of historical epics in spectacular Technicolor, but that’s exactly what Drums Along the Mohawk is, a grand depiction of colonial life complete with savages on the warpath and Henry Fonda wearing a pigtail.
I remember seeing Drums for the first time in a film appreciation class in Junior College. I had yet to learn who Ford was or have any understanding of his revered place in cinematic history. So, I had no preconceived notion of what was meant by the moniker of “a John Ford film”, and looking back I think it was a good thing I didn’t. Because I had no expectations that may have led to disappointment. I know now that for most people the phrase means “Western”, but having seen Drums first before any of Ford’s other work I interpret the phrase “a John Ford film” to mean a damn good movie.
By the time Ford directed Drums he had close to a hundred titles to his credit and was as much a recognized force in cinema as Frank Capra or Charlie Chaplin. His name alone could guarantee ticket sales to the public who loved his work with the great early Western stars Harry Carey and Tom Mix (John Wayne had yet to become a name). And even though this would be his first film in color, it was only natural that 20th Century Fox should trust Ford with of one of their most expensive, elaborate and anticipated period projects to that date, and their trust was well placed.
Ford was a no-holds-barred kind of man who enjoyed shooting on location. He likened it to summer camp for a thirteen year old. He felt he ate better and slept better when roughing it. He also believed that location shooting worked wonders on a crew’s moral and work ethic. Of course, the natural camaraderie that flowed throughout the set on Ford’s pictures was due in large part to the crew’s faith in him as a director. Although Ford was known to be tough, difficult and even mean to cast and crew alike, he was also known for being damn good, on time, under budget and usually right. Crews worked harder, but much shorter hours than their contemporaries, often working office hours of 9 to 5 rather than the usual 12 hour days standard throughout the industry even today. The main reason for his success was that Ford knew exactly what he wanted from the actors and the camera and never wasted shooting a shot he didn’t think would be used.
Leading lady, Claudette Colbert was a huge star in 1939 and was use to being handled by so-called women’s directors on all of her projects. She had the power to demand one director over another, or bow out of a project if she was unsatisfied. Colbert, however proved to be a true professional by stepping up to the plate and performing extremely well under the harsh eye of Ford. In a way her experience on set mirrored that of her character. “Lana” is a gentrified colonial who falls for a pioneer who takes her away to the unsettled Mohawk Valley in up state New York right before the Revolutionary War. “Lana” is a bit of a frail type in the beginning, but through trials and tribulations against nature and natives she toughens up and becomes a true frontiers women. Colbert was known for her feminine qualities, but Ford actually gave the beautiful drama queen the opportunity to be something on screen she had never experienced before: a pillar of physical strength, as she fights off attackers and even kills a man. Colbert’s screen image transitions in Drums from the headstrong society girl who is reliant on the whims of a man (Cleopatra not withstanding) to a woman who can take care of herself when necessary.
Fonda’s image on and off the screen experienced a similar transformation starting with his character “Gil”. 1939 was an important turning point in Fonda’s career. Previous to Drums the stage trained actor was often cast in films as a gentle and simple man, even the comedic dupe the better known female star would fall for. But that changed for Fonda under the direction of Ford. Produced less than a year before The Grapes of Wrath and shortly before Young Mr. Lincoln (both Ford films), Drums first presents Fonda in the familiar form of a soft spoken thinker, but “Gil” ultimately grows into a rugged individual as he suffers through one adversity after another; he survives rampages on his farm, he battles the red coats, and he runs all night through the woods with so called savages in hot pursuit in order to save the remaining settlers of his valley. Through “Gil” Fonda finally becomes the image he is best known for today; a personification of a common message in the post depression era - that a man of ideas can also be a man of substance.
John Ford will always be synonymous with Westerns. But I think it’s important to remember that like most talented filmmakers of his day, Ford was a versatile director who used his talents to great success in every genre, and Drums Along the Mohawk was no exception. With such glorious achievements as Stagecoach and The Searchers to his credit it’s easy to forget that his four Oscars for Best Director (a record that has never been matched) were earned for work on films having nothing remotely to do with the West, including The Informer which was set in Ireland, The Grapes of Wrath about Okies, How Green Was My Valley set in Wales, and The Quite Man also set in Ireland. It’s no wonder Orson Welles studied Ford’s films before directing Citizen Kane. Considering how well that turned out for Welles it would probably be wise for all first time director’s to do the same.