On the eve of the American War for Independence in 1776, Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert) marries Gilbert Martin (Henry Fonda) and leaves her luxurious home in Albany, New York for his small farm in Deerfield on the western frontier of Mohawk Valley in central New York. The well-bred rich girl initially has trouble adjusting to frontier life, not least being startled by scary-but-friendly Indian brave Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree), but eventually settles comfortably into tending the farm alongside her husband and neighbours. However, rabble-rousing Tory, Caldwell (John Carradine) orchestrates an Indian attack upon the colonial farms, burning the Martins place to the ground, while Lana suffers a miscarriage. With no home and winter approaching, the young couple accept work on the farm belonging to wealthy widow Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver). Through their hard work and perseverance the community starts to prosper again, but Caldwell and his Indians lurk on the horizon…
Somewhat overlooked by fans, Drums Along the Mohawk is one of the most accomplished works by the great John Ford and certainly among the finest films about colonial times. For all its grit and gunpowder, one could easily call it a “woman’s picture”, since top-billed Claudette Colbert is essentially the focal point. Ford uses her gradual transformation from prim and prissy society belle into a gently stoic pioneer heroine as an extended metaphor for the resilience of the American frontiersmen. Which is not to sell short the contributions of the marvellous Henry Fonda - an actor who almost radiates decency and stoicism in his youth - nor Edna May Oliver, who arguably steals the show as the gutsy, sharp-tongued widow with a heart as big as all outdoors. Her sudden bedroom encounter with two drunk Indian braves deftly illustrates Ford’s skill as he tweaks the scene from horrific to comedic and back again without missing a beat.
Despite the rosy glow of Bert Glennon’s cinematography, this is a film that delves into the toil, mud and back-breaking work that tamed the American west, an unflinching look at the sufferings endured, although leavened with humour, romance and adventure. It’s shockingly brutal at times, especially throughout the Indian attacks when sharp editing clips blink-and-you’ll-miss-it instances of child death, possible rape and likeable characters meeting disturbingly violent ends. As often with Ford, the wild landscape becomes something that must be endured and yet defines the American character, enabling us a greater understanding of why history shaped the way it did. At this stage in Ford’s development, Indians were the living embodiment of that frightening and untamed landscape, even though he uses the alternately worldly-wise and childlike Blue Back to inject some wry humour.
Ford is firmly on the side of the colonial families, yet not blind to their faults. They are sometimes naïve, pernickety and can exhibit more bravery than sense, although women remain the more pragmatic in spite of the occasional gossip-monger or jealousies. Reverend Rosencrantz (Arthur Shields) uses his pulpit to spread gossip and advertise local businesses, while the army too readily leaves these farmers to fend for themselves. Yet Ford embraces all, regardless of human foibles. His is an admirably inclusive vision of America for its time, notably the closing sequence wherein, as the American flag is hoisted, Ford cuts from men to women, black to white, Native American to colonial. Nary a word is spoken, yet this sequence is considerably more eloquent than all the achingly sincere speechifying in Revolution (1985) or The Patriot (2000).