Watching 1939: Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Release date: 
Nov. 2, 1939

Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Edna May Oliver, Eddie Collins, John Carradine, Jessie Ralph, Arthur Shields, Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Francis Ford, Kay Linaker, Chief John Big Tree, Eddie Collins, Dorris Bowdon, Beulah Hall Jones, Charles Tannen

20th Century Fox

John Ford

Set in 1776, wealthy, Albany, NY, woman Lana (Colbert) marries frontiersman Gilbert Martin (Fonda). The two set out to Gil’s farm in Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley of central New York. Lana has a difficult time adjusting to frontier life, but soon the settle into farm life. However, the American Revolution disrupts their lives.

1939 Notes:
• Producer Darryl F. Zanuck, director John Ford, screenwriter Lamar Trotti, and actor Henry Fonda, worked together on two films in 1939: Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk.
• Last film of actress Beulah Hall Jones.
By the Numbers:
– Henry Fonda was in five films released in 1939.
– Claudette Colbert was in three films released in 1939.
– John Ford directed three films released in 1939. Henry Fonda starred in two of them.
– Edna May Oliver was in four films released in 1939. After this film, she only starred in two other movies. Oliver died in 1942.
– John Carradine was in nine films released in 1939.
– Ward Bond was in 20 films released in 1939.
– Chief John Big Tree was in five films released in 1939.
– Russell Simpson was in eight films released in 1939.
– Eddie Collins was in eight films released in 1939. Collins died the following year in 1940.
– Dorris Bowdon was in two films released in 1939.
– Jessie Ralph was in six films released in 1939.
– Kay Linaker was in eight films released in 1939.
– Arthur Shields was only in one film released in 1939.

Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert in Drums Along the Mohawk

Other trivia: 
• Premiered in Albany, New York, where the film began.
• The film is based on the 1936 book “Drums Along the Mohawk” by Walter D. Edmonds.
• Filmed in Cedar Breaks, Utah.
• The actors worked without amenities as they shot on location, and Colbert requested a bathtub, according to her biographer Bernard F. Dick.
• Nancy Kelly was originally cast to play the role of Lana, according to Dick’s book.
• John Ford’s first Technicolor feature film.
• John Ford’s only film focusing on the Revolutionary War.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Before I get too started – let me stop and share before you call this film a “western,” don’t. Though John Ford’s moniker is in the credits, this film is a Revolutionary War film set in rural New York (not to mention that Ford made more than just westerns).

Not many films look at the Revolutionary War, and “Drums Along the Mowhawk” (1939) gives that rare look at it and Ford’s only film that features this period in history. It’s an engaging film. One minute it’s deathly serious, and the next you are laughing.

Ford wrote to Darryl F. Zanuck that the story “calls for a placid, pastoral simple movement which suddenly breaks into quick, heavy, dramatic overtones,” according to Ford biographer Scott Eyman.

The film follows a newlywed couple, played by Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda, as they settle into the frontier. Colbert’s character Lana is used to city life and while Fonda’s Gil was already living in the frontier of New York

The whole time you are marveling at the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. “Drums Along the Mohawk” was John Ford’s first Technicolor film. Though he later said he preferred black-and-white and felt that was “real photography,” Ford and cinematographers Bert Glennon and
Ray Rennahan did fantastic work here. It’s visually stunning. One of my favorite scenes where I almost gasped at its beauty, is when Henry Fonda runs over the horizon with the sunset behind him.

What I think is interesting is that not only in the film are they on the frontier, away from civilization, it seems that it was that way during filming too. John Ford selected a remote area in Utah, and it lacked amenities so much that Colbert requested a bathtub for the cabin she was using.

According to biographer Scott Eyman, Henry Fonda said each night was like summer camp. They would sit on big logs around a fire and take turns doing entertainment. Fonda said that the atmosphere became family-like and he almost cried when it was all over.

In Walter D. Edmonds’s best selling book that the film is based on, Native Americans were not the main antagonist as they are in the film. The movie does reinforce stereotypes of both the friendly/naive Native American and the terrorizing Native Americans, according to the book “Race in American Film: Voices and Visions that Shaped a Nation.”

The character of Blue Back, Chief John Big Tree, is a friendly and naive and helps Henry Fonda in the film. The terrorizing Indians are all taking orders from John Carradine’s character (the picturesque villain complete with cape and eye patch). Carradine is a Tory (an American colonist who sided with Great Britain) and uses the Native Americans to work against the revolutionaries, such as burning down their farms and crops.

“They have no life of their own. They appear only as a threat or a help to white men,” according to “Race in American Film…”

Colbert later said that she didn’t feel comfortable in costume dramas like “Drums Along the Mohawk,” but I think she’s wonderful as always. Henry Fonda is great as well – but that’s nothing new.

Edna May Oliver

But the real scene-stealer here is Edna Mae Oliver. If you aren’t interested in watching this film, watch it solely for her. She has the best lines and brings humor to the film. And at the same time, she is in some of the most heartwrenching and dramatic scenes. She is just fabulous. “Drums Along the Mohawk” is one of Oliver’s last films. She died in 1942.

In the grand scheme of 1939, I do think “Drums Along the Mohawk” is often overlooked. Though this film was more successful than “Young Mr. Lincoln” (which starred Fonda and was directed by Ford), I feel that film gets more attention. And for Colbert that year, it was “Midnight” that is now better remembered – because we all also want to forget “It’s a Wonderful World.”

With its bouts of humor and also stunning beauty, I find “Drums Along the Mohawk” visually gorgeous, exciting and also emotional film.

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