Drums Along The Mohawk

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John Ford’s technicolor frontier epic Drums Along The Mohawk (1939) offered Depression era audiences a sense of relief and inspiration. The film, set in New York during the Revolutionary War, follows Lana (Claudette Colbert) and Gil Martin (Henry Fonda) as they strive to make a home for themselves in the face of poverty, British attack, and frontier hardship. For Ford and his audience the Martins serve as a kind of role model for Depression era families.

Drums Along The Mohawk is more of a melodrama than a frontier adventure film, focusing more on the perspective of Lana and the widow Sarah McKlennar (Edna May Oliver) rather than the wartime exploits of Gil. In Ford’s hands Drums Along The Mohawk is a portrait of a family withstanding hardships and finding strength in community. Like many films of this period there is a distinctly socialist subtext to Drums Along The Mohawk that is played out in sentimental scenes between Gil and Lana.

Yet, Drums Along The Mohawk is always a John Ford picture. The women are tough and the men are loud, strong, fierce, and wholly committed to that singular American dream that one can make anything of themselves. Despite being hampered by the technicolor equipment, Ford nonetheless fills his film with stunning landscapes of forests, mountains, and streams. Drums Along The Mohawk is a Romantic film that celebrates the notion of American manifest destiny.

However, this pre-war era of John Ford’s career is marked by casual racism towards indigenous peoples as well as a certain naivety regarding the American character. Henry Fonda in Drums Along The Mohawk appears as little more than a caricature in comparison to his role in Ford’s post-war western My Darling Clementine (1946). Ford’s films and the characters therein undergo a significant shift during WWII from that of idealized Romantic figures of the past to psychologically complex and nihilistic specters of a national trauma.

There are aspects of Drums Along The Mohawk that eerily foreshadow the conventions of the wartime melodramas to come. Claudette Colbert’s character Lana, struggling to keep her family and home, spends much of Drums Along The Mohawk waiting for husband Gil to return home from skirmishes with the British. In this way Lana is a kind of precursor to Colbert’s character Anne Hilton in epic melodrama Since You Went Away (1944). So in a strange way Drums Along The Mohawk reflects a kind of intersection between the national concerns of the Depression with WWII.

Drums Along The Mohawk signals the close of the middle portion of John Ford’s career and that of the classic Hollywood studio system as a whole. In 1941 Orson Welles and John Huston will make their directing debuts and forever alter the tone and look of mainstream Hollywood pictures. The challenge that their films represented to directors like John Ford was as formative as WWII. Although Hollywood would go on making films like Drums Along The Mohawk never again would those films capture the zeitgeist as they did in the second half of the thirties.