Drums Along the Mohawk
|Drums Along the Mohawk|
DVD release cover
|Directed by||John Ford|
|Produced by||Darryl F. Zanuck|
|Screenplay by||Sonya Levien|
|Based on||Drums Along the Mohawk|
by Walter D. Edmonds
Edna May Oliver
|Music by||Alfred Newman|
|Edited by||Robert L. Simpson|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Budget||over $2 million|
Drums Along the Mohawk is a 1939 American historical drama film based upon a 1936 novel of the same name by American author Walter D. Edmonds. The film was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by John Ford. Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert portray settlers on the New York frontier during the American Revolution. The couple suffer British, Tory, and Indian attacks on their farm before the Revolution ends and peace is restored.
Edmonds based the novel on a number of historic figures who lived in the valley. The film—Ford's first Technicolor feature—was well received. It was nominated for two Academy Awards and became a major box office success, grossing over US$1 million in its first year.
In colonial America, Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert), the eldest daughter of a wealthy family, marries Gilbert Martin (Henry Fonda). Together they leave her family's luxurious home to embark on a frontier life on Gil's small farm in Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley of central New York. The time is July 1776, and the spirit of revolution is in the air. The valley's mostly ethnic German settlers have formed a local militia in anticipation of an imminent war, and Gil joins up.
As Gil and his neighbors are clearing his land for farming, Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree), a friendly Oneida man, arrives to warn them that a raiding party of Seneca, led by a Tory named Caldwell (John Carradine), is in the valley. The settlers leave their farms and take refuge in nearby Fort Schuyler. Lana, who is pregnant, miscarries during the frantic ride to the fort. The Martin farm is destroyed by the Seneca raiding party. With no home and winter approaching, the Martins accept work on the farm of a wealthy widow, Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver).
During a peaceful interlude, Mrs. McKlennar and the Martins prosper. Then, word comes that a large force of British soldiers and Indians is approaching the valley. The militia sets out westward to intercept the attackers; but their approach is badly timed and the party is ambushed. Though the enemy is eventually defeated at Oriskany, more than half of the militiamen are killed. Gil returns home, wounded and delirious, but slowly recovers. Lana is again pregnant and delivers a son in May. That summer Indian and Tory raiding parties burn and pillage farms and small settlements. The harvest is small, and while Mrs. McKlennar's stone house is not burned, there is barely enough food to survive the winter. Lana bears her second child, another son, the following August. The raids continue but the crops fare much better, so there is plenty to eat that winter, although the cold is severe.
After the spring thaw, the British and their Indian allies mount a major attack to take the valley, and the settlers again take refuge in the fort. Mrs. McKlennar is mortally wounded and ammunition runs short. Gil makes a heroic dash through enemy lines to secure help from nearby Fort Dayton. Reinforcements arrive just in time to beat back the attackers, who are about to overwhelm the fort. The militia pursues, harasses, and defeats the British force, scattering its surviving soldiers in the wilderness. The Mohawk Valley is saved.
Three years later, with the war over, Gil and Lana return to their farm at Deerfield. They have a third child (a baby girl). They look forward to a happy and peaceful life in the valley as citizens of the new, independent United States of America.
- Claudette Colbert as Magdalena "Lana" Borst Martin
- Henry Fonda as Gilbert "Gil" Martin
- Edna May Oliver as Mrs. McKlennar
- Eddie Collins as Christian Reall
- John Carradine as Caldwell
- Ward Bond as Adam Helmer
- Roger Imhof as Gen. Nicholas Herkimer
- Arthur Shields as Rev. Rosenkrantz
- Chief John Big Tree as Blue Back
- Francis Ford as Joe Boleo
- Jessie Ralph as Mrs. Weaver
- Robert Lowery as John Weaver
- Kay Linaker as Mrs. Demooth
- Russell Simpson as Dr. Petry
- Spencer Charters as Innkeeper
- Tom Tyler as Capt. Morgan (uncredited)
Like most of John Ford's films, Drums Along the Mohawk loosely is based on historical events. A central feature of the plot is the Battle of Oriskany, a pivotal engagement of the Saratoga campaign during the American Revolutionary War, in which a British contingent drove southward from Canada in an attempt to occupy the Hudson Valley and isolate Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts from the remaining colonies. A smaller force invaded the Mohawk Valley as a diversion, but the siege of Fort Schuyler depicted in the film had no direct historical counterpart. The actual fort besieged during the battle—Fort Stanwix—was situated far from any civilian settlements, and was attacked by British and Hessian soldiers aided by local Iroquois tribes, not solely by Indians; and was defended by Continental Army soldiers, not militiamen. The Tryon County militia, under General Nicholas Herkimer, did attempt to assist in the fort's defense, but they were ambushed on their way there by a predominantly Indian force at Oriskany, six miles east of Stanwix.
Some sources contend that the attacks on settlements in the Mohawk Valley likewise lacked a historical basis, and were included because Ford felt obliged to perpetuate the mythology; but others claim that raids were indeed conducted, often by hostile Indians allied with Tories—British loyalists who had moved to Canada from the valley before the war's onset.
The film portrays only Indians and Tories as antagonists; British soldiers are seldom referenced or seen. While local Indian tribes and Tory loyalists were a factor in the actual Mohawk Valley campaign, their role was a minor one compared to that of the British Army. Ford chose to minimize the British role because of the political situation in 1939: "He knew that war with Germany was coming, and he had little desire to show the British as villains when they were fighting for their lives against the Nazis."
Reception and legacy
Frank S. Nugent reviewed the film for The New York Times of November 4, 1939 and wrote:
- Walter D. Edmonds's exciting novel of the Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution has come to the...screen in a considerably elided, but still basically faithful, film edition bearing the trademark of Director John Ford...It is romantic enough for any adventure-story lover. It has its humor, its sentiment, its full complement of blood and thunder...a first-rate historical film, as rich atmospherically as it is in action...Mr. Fonda and Miss Colbert have done rather nicely with the Gil and Lana Martin...Miss Oliver could not have been bettered as the warlike Widow McKlennar...Mr. Shields's Rev. Rosenkrantz...Mr. Imhof's General Herkimer, Mr. Collins's Christian Reall, Spencer Charters's landlord, Ward Bond's Adam Helmer...They've matched the background excellently, all of them.
- "52 FEATURE FILMS ON FOX '39-40 LIST: Five Will Cost $2,000,000 Each--Zanuck to Supervise 24 Large Productions 'THE RAINS CAME' ON BILL 'Drums Along Mohawk,' 'Little Old New York,' 'Brigham Young' Scheduled Edmonds's Story in Color Elsa Maxwell Featured". New York Times. Apr 4, 1939. p. 29.
- D'Arc, James V. (2010). When Hollywood came to town: a history of moviemaking in Utah (1st ed.). Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. ISBN 9781423605874.
- Boehlert, P. A. The Battle of Oriskany and General Nicholas Herkimer: Revolution in the Mohawk Valley. The History Press (2013), pp. 78-84. ISBN 1626192243
- Boehlert (2013), pp. 99-102.
- Simms, JR. History of Schohairie County, and Border Wars of New York. Albany, New York: Munsell and Tanner Printers, 1845, pp. 232–3
- The American War of Independence: Three Films. HistoryExtra (BBC). Retrieved February 23, 2015.
- Simms (1845), pp. 337–8, 344-54, 360, 373, 375-87, 381, 399.
- Rollins, PC. Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film. The University Press of Kentucky (2003), pp. 74-5. ISBN 0813190770
- Drums Along the Mohawk. historyonfilm.com. Retrieved February 23, 2015.
- Frank S. Nugent (2009-11-04). "John Ford's Film of 'Drums Along the Mohawk' Opens at the Roxy". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-28.
-  Oscars.org page showing Academy Award nominees and awards for 12th Academy Awards. Retrieved July 11, 2020.
- "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
- For a detailed comparison of the film with Edmonds' novel, see: Countryman, Edward (1980). "John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk: The Making of an American Myth". Radical History Review. 1980 (24): 93–112. doi:10.1215/01636545-1980-24-93.
Edmonds wrote a novel that combined hard research into the dynamics of a social crisis with a form that opened that research to a mass public. Ford made of that novel a film which pictures two forces that must conflict because their nature demands it and which argues that the triumph of the American cause obliterates all divisions, whether of race, class, or sex.
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