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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Drums Along the Mohawk (Fox, 1939)

Not Ford at his best



Yesterday I re-watched Drums Along the Mohawk.

The success of Henry Fonda in Fox’s Young Mr. Lincoln, directed by John Ford, meant that he (Hank, not Abe) was an obvious choice to star in Ford’s next foray into the American past, to tell the story of how the United States were born. And this time it was based on a best-seller, was in Technicolor, had a big budget and there was a large cast. So, directed as the film was by Ford, and starring Fonda as it did, you would assume that this is a must-own, often-watch Western, right?

But it isn’t. It isn’t really a Western, at all for one thing. It’s a revolutionary war story set in rural New York state in which Gil Martin (Fonda) goes off, leaving posh new bride Lana (Claudette Colbert) on the farm, to win independence from the British and their Tory and Indian allies. For another, it’s a slow-moving plodder, with occasional flurries of action, and the script is uneven, rambling and unfocused.

Fonda is superb, although no great demands were placed on him by the script or story. In his biography of John Ford, Scott Eyman makes an interesting point:

Ford would use Fonda in a very different way than he would use John Wayne. Wayne’s characters were earthy and warm, brawlers by temperament, capable of love and rage. Fonda’s characters burned with a cold fire – they displayed strength, but a removed, abstracted, rather asexual strength, tempered by the actor’s instinctive austerity.

However, apart from Fonda, the rest of the acting is pretty middle of the road. La Colbert (who in fact got top billing) thought acting meant pressing the back of the hand to the forehead and sighing. Her performance is desperately old-fashioned. The support actors were only a little better. John Carradine looks splendid as the evil Tory villain in an eyepatch (maybe he borrowed it from Ford) but he has so little to say or do he doesn’t get a chance. Ditto Ward Bond, though he is cheerful. Dear old Russell Simpson was always wheeled out whenever a Mormon or Quaker elder was needed or any kind of minister. He had been 'rediscovered' by Ford after a long career in silent Westerns. Here he is a snuff-taking doctor. John Ford’s elder brother Francis Ford, his career now in a vertical decline, was given a bit part as Joe Boleo, a member of the community. He has a few more lines than usual and a strong Irish accent is noticeable. Chief John Big Tree had been doing his comic “Hallelujah!” Indian chief act for Ford since The Iron Horse and was still to be doing it in
The Searchers thirty years later. Here he gets one or two Hallelujahs.

Gil takes his posh new bride back to the cabin
It’s all either corny or bland – not a good combo for a Western. Among the non-Fonda cast, only Edna May Oliver as the old lady shows any depth and is worthy to act alongside Hank. She is strong and memorable. “I’ve got a long face,” she says, “and I poke it where I please.”
She pokes it where she pleases

There’s some decent Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan photography (especially during the chase when Fonda is outrunning the Indians to get help), and both received Oscar nominations, though Ford was always ambivalent about color.  Utah stands in effectively for upper New York State. The Alfred Newman score also does the job.

Fine photography
Gil’s heroic run saves the day: in a scene reminiscent of Francis Ford’s movie The Invaders (John often borrowed from Frank) the troops arrive just as the Indians are climbing the wall of their fort.
'New York State'
But the characters are one-dimensional and the movie is hopelessly naïve. The women all scream hysterically when the Indians come; both the Indian and the Negro salute the American flag sentimentally (difficult to know what they were getting out of Independence).This is not Ford at his best, by any manner of means.
The source novel
The script had been through too many typewriters, even that of William Faulkner (though his treatment was the furthest removed from the final product). The story was largely structured by Darryl Zanuck, who tinkered endlessly with the script in a very hands-on way. He wanted, he said in a note, to GIVE A SHOW (Darryl’s caps) and MAKE ENTERTAINMENT. As usual, except on his later movies, Ford himself also made quite radical changes and cuts as he went along. It’s a hodge-podge.

There are moments when you catch yourself wondering, ‘This can’t be John Ford, can it?’



  1. Edna May Oliver was always something else! And Claudette was incandescently lovely. I met her in her 80s, and she was still lovely. Wish she were better in this picture, though.

    Oddly, I've never been able to warm to Fonda. Don't know why; just never have.

    1. Fonda had a cold hardness to him as an actor, or a cold fire if you will. Best seen as Tom Joad in my view. He was a good Western actor because he did lone, tough and stoic so well.

  2. Well dated for sure... Overloaded with typical fordian tics, sentimental and esthetic mannerism, comedy and tragedy mix etc. Even within the battles when Ward Bond ridiculously kicked the Indians with his feet only and Claudette - born Emilie Chauchoin in a Paris suburb - so good in Capra,s New-York-Miami is unbearable playing like in a silent movie. In an other hand, to keep the positive, Fonda, the village and field daily life, the military fellowship, the ball, the sense of the community, and patriotism, Francis Ford's end - I am wondering if it has inspired a similar scene in Robert Wise's Sand Peebles !? - all themes announcing the trilogy. An other aspect of the film is its propaganda of the time. Funnily enough the film score almost ends with God Save the Queen...!
    And Utah is very good in lieu of Upstate New-York!
    We can of course endless argue if the adventure films set east of Mississippi in North America in the 18th and early 19th centuries are westerns. Well, the Appalachian mountains were the first western frontier of the 13 colonies so in a way they are. JM

    1. 'Frontier movies' is perhaps a better definition, as the excellent website Frontier Partisans knows.

  3. Maybe but since the Frontier - in the US history - is a moving concept, most of the westerns could be considered as Frontier movies...! What do you think of Colonial westerns !? JM

    1. Myself, I have a preference for 'true' Westerns, set in the West between about 1865 and 1900. 18th century stories may be historical dramas and they may be frontier stories, and they are Westerns by some definitions, but they don't really do it for me. I am happier with more modern Westerns, with cars and such, as long as they have Western themes and spirit.