Drums Along the Mohawk

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Drums Along the Mohawk
DVD release cover
Directed by John Ford
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck (executive producer)
Screenplay by Sonya Levien
Lamar Trotti
Based on Drums Along the Mohawk
1939 novel 
by Walter D. Edmonds
Starring Claudette Colbert
Henry Fonda
Edna May Oliver
John Carradine
Ward Bond
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Ray Rennahan
Edited by Robert L. Simpson
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • November 3, 1939 (1939-11-03)
Running time
103 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget over $2 million[1]

Drums Along the Mohawk is a 1939 historical Technicolor 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. The film—Ford's first color feature—was well received, 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 Albany, New York 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 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 evacuate 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), and they look forward to a happy and peaceful life in the valley as citizens of the new, independent United States of America.


Historical accuracy[edit]

Like most of John Ford's films, Drums Along the Mohawk is loosely based on historical events. A central event of the plot is the Battle of Oriskany, a pivotal engagement of the Saratoga campaign in the American Revolutionary War, in which a British contingent moved southward from Canada in an attempt to occupy the Hudson Valley and separate New England (Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts) from the remaining colonies.[2] A smaller force invaded the Mohawk Valley as a diversion, but the siege of Fort Schuyler depicted in the film was inaccurate. The actual fort besieged in the battle, which was accurately referred to in the movie as Fort Schuyler, was called by that name by contemporary Whig sources, though its name in modern times has reverted to the pre-Revolutionary designation of Fort Stanwix. Fort Schuyler/Stanwix was located 17 miles to the west of Deerfield, the site of the civilian settlements depicted in the movie and cited as the home of the fictional Gil Martin in Walter Edmonds' novel. Fort Stanwix was attacked by British and Loyalist forces under the command of Colonel Barry St. Leger together with a large contingent of their allied Iroquois Indians, but it was defended by Continental Army regular soldiers, not militiamen. The Tryon County militia under General Nicholas Herkimer mustered in the area east of Stanwix around the present day communities of Utica and Herkimer, NY and marched toward Stanwix where they were surprised by a predominantly Indian force at Oriskany, six miles east of Stanwix.[3] The raids on settlements in the valley by Indians and Tories do have an often overlooked historical basis, and these were often conducted as joint operations by those who had resided in the Mohawk Valley before the War, and remained loyal to the King. Early in the War they resettled in Canada, which was their base of operations.[4]

The film portrays only Indians and "Tories" as antagonists. The historical accuracy of this is well documented by Jeptha Root Simms <1845>, whose account was based on the written annals of the War as well as eyewitness interviews with veterans and survivors. "Drums Along the Mohawk" author Walter Edmonds was well familiar with this and many other historical documents, which he mentions in his preface, including the "Minute Book of the Committee of Safety" of Tryon County.

Critical reception[edit]

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."[5]

Academy Award nominations[edit]

The film was nominated for two awards: Best Supporting Actress (Edna May Oliver) and Best Cinematography (Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon).


  1. ^ 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 (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 04 Apr 1939: 29.
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ Jephtha Root Simms, "History of Schohairie County, and Border Wars of New York...", Albany, NY: Munsell and Tanner Printers, 1845, pp. 232–3
  4. ^ Simms, pp. 337–8, 344-54, 360, 373, 375-87, 381, 399.
  5. ^ Frank S. Nugent (2009-11-04). "John Ford's Film of 'Drums Along the Mohawk' Opens at the Roxy". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-28. 

External links[edit]