Ford Sounds the War Drums
John Ford made some stunning movies and to be honest with its story of the trials and tribulations of late-18th century pioneers "Drums Along the Mohawk" is a stunning movie. But it feels like a movie where you need to know a bit of American History to fully appreciate it because without that historical knowledge "Drums Along the Mohawk" becomes just a movie and not a historical account. And that is what "Drums Along the Mohawk" it to me, a well made, well acted movie which has stood the test of time to be just as entertaining now as I am sure it was when first released. But because I am not an American and that period of history was never taught in British schools there is no connection to it making it just a movie.
Having just got married Gil Martin (Henry Fonda - On Golden Pond) takes his new wife, Lana (Claudette Colbert - It Happened One Night), back to his farm near Deerfield in upstate New York. Despite Lana's initial shock at the roughness of his land, with no common comforts and a friendly Indian they soon settle down to try and build a life for themselves, making friends with other settlers who congregate at the nearest Fort at German Flats. But married life is not easy especially as their land comes under attack from Indians and with the declaration of independence it causes the settlers to be at war with the British and their Indian allies forcing Gil to go off to fight.
So as already mentioned "Drums Along the Mohawk" is basically a look at the trials and tribulations of late-18th century pioneers in particularly newly married couple Lana and Gil Martin. What we get in this look are a series of events starting with Lana's initial struggle with what lay ahead of her having moved to Gil's land he owns near Deerfield. It's a great start because of the culture shock aspect as Lana becomes hysterical, unable to cope with the lack of common comforts and a friendly Indian who lets himself into Gil's cabin. And it goes on because we get shown the community spirit as the settlers join together to help each other out along with the men forming their own rag bag army in the nearby Fort at German Flats.
But where "Drums Along the Mohawk" comes good is when it embraces the action element of the story be it when the Indians lead by the nefarious Caldwell destroy the settlers home or when the men are forced to go off and fight. It's not really the action which impresses although later on the attack on the fort is stunning, but more as to how it affects the settlers. We watch as the women having to cope in the absence of their loved ones in particular Lana who has a variety of personal issues to deal with. And then when the men return, bruised, battered and dieing how it affects them giving us the great scene where Gil almost delusional rambles on about what he witnessed when he was fighting.
All of this, the build up, the action, the personal dramas are all visually brilliant which to be honest you expect nothing less of a John Ford movie. The locations are stunning as are his trademark awe inspiring skylines and whilst there is not a huge amount of action what there is, is very impressive with the Indians attempt to storm the fort being quite stunning. And you have to say that there is a raw brutality to what Ford delivers with scenes such as when one settler gets burned alive being vividly surprising, especially for a movie not only made back in the 30s but also when you consider that "Drums Along the Mohawk" was released as World War II was starting.
On top of the great direction you also have to say that Ford gets some brilliant performances from his cast. The early scenes were Lana goes into a state of hysterics as to the roughness of her new life is just brilliant and Claudette Colbert really delivers every ounce of that scene. But at the same time as the story progresses you also believe that Lana is totally in love with Gilbert, with the scenes of them working together on their land being quite sensitive. As such the pairing of Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda is spot on with Fonda really coming into his own in the movie when he delivers that rambling account of what he witnessed when he went of to fight. So powerful are the pairing of Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda that no one else really gets a look in and whilst Edna May Oliver as strangely amusing as Mrs. McKlennar, John Carradine is very much wasted as bad guy Caldwell.
But here is the thing "Drums Along the Mohawk" is about a moment in America's history, a look at what those early settlers went through and if you have some knowledge of this period then I am sure that the movie becomes great. But watching "Drums Along the Mohawk" without that knowledge it ends up just a very well made movie which will entertain.
What this all boils down to is that "Drums Along the Mohawk" is what you expect from a John Ford movie and that is some stunning backdrops, some great action and some equally great performances. But it feels like a movie that to fully appreciate you need to know a certain amount of American history and without that knowledge it is just a very entertaining movie rather than something more powerful.