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DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (director: John Ford; screenwriters: Sonya Levien/Lamar Trotti/based on the novel by Walter D. Edmonds; cinematographers: Bert Glennon/Ray Rennahan; editor: Robert Simpson; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Henry Fonda (Gil Martin), Claudette Colbert (Lana Martin), Edna May Oliver (Mrs. McKlennar), John Carradine (Caldwell), Ward Bond (Adam Hartman), Roger Imhof (General Herkimer), Dorris Bowden (Mary Reall), Arthur Shields (Reverend Rosenkrantz), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Weaver), Robert Lowery (John Weaver), Chief Big Tree (Blue Back), Russell Simpson (Dr. Petry), Beulah Hall Jones (Daisy), Francis Ford (Joe Bleo); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; Twentieth Century-Fox; 1939)
“Visually very pleasing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Ford (“The Quiet Man”/”Pilgrimage”/”Cheyenne Autumn”) directs his first film shot in color, and it’s visually very pleasing (shot mostly in Utah). Ford was a busy man in 1939, as he also shot two other even greater classics–Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln. Writers Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien adapt it from Walter D. Edmonds’s best-seller. It’s set on the eve of the Revolutionary War in upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley. Ford captures the rugged nature of the settler farmer and their hard life, who are faced with constant Indian raids and intrigue from the Tories. The Revolutionary War in these remote parts, we are reminded, was fought by the ill-equipped upstate NY farmer, mostly of German stock and low-breeding, mainly to protect their farms and maintain civil order. This seems to be the point of the pic, that it wasn’t until after the war was over did the soldier/farmer realize they were fighting to start a new country.

Earnest wilderness farmer Gilbert Martin (Henry Fonda) marries the pretty upper-class city girl Lana “Magdalena” Borst (Claudette Colbert), in Albany, in 1776, and treks to Deerfield, in the Mohawk Valley, where he built a small log cabin in a secluded but fertile area. Lana has to adjust to the harsh conditions and his friendship with the fierce looking Indian Blue Back (Chief Big Tree), a Christian convert, who at first gives her a fright and makes her yearn for Albany. After their hard work, they are completely burned out by Indians who were spurred on by an eye-patch wearing Tory named Caldwell (John Carradine) and while escaping to German Flats Lana lost their first child. The spunky widow Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver) generously offers the homeless couple a home and paid wages for work on her land. Things are now peaceful and this time the couple succeeds in having a baby boy. But the backwoods community militia, under General Herkimer (Roger Imhof), stave off a vicious Indian attack, where they win the battle but lose about 400 of their 600 men. The survivors are huddled together with their families at the fort at German Flats when the Indians attack again. When the settler’s ammo runs low Gilbert takes the place of Joe Boleo (Francis Ford), who is captured and burned alive in his attempt to reach the nearby Fort Danton for regular army reinforcements. Gilbert has to outrun three Mohawks through the woods, but his effort saves the day as the troops arrive just as the Indians climbed the wall of their fort. Peace is then permanently restored to the valley, as the men learn that the war is over and the young couple looks forward to farming and having a big family.

Cinematographers Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan received Academy Award nominations, as did Edna May Oliver for Best Supporting Actress. Oliver was the perfect Ford character actor, as she played to the hilt an ornery and defiant matriarch. Fonda carries the pic as the solid lead you can empathize with, who has one of the film’s defining moments when he offers a shell-shocked account of the battle; Colbert, even though a fish out of water, turns in an acceptable sweet and teeth-gritting hysterical performance. The stars were ably supported by a group of character actors who look and act as if they belong to those backwoods times, and they include Arthur Shields as the flaky parson, Ward Bond as the fun-loving rascal but fierce fighter and Russell Simpson as the snuff taking doctor you can count on. The film was one of the more commercially successful ones Ford made, but didn’t have enough emotional drama to make it one of the director’s great films.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”