#16 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
I don’t think there are enough movies about the American Revolution. They’re sprinkled throughout the century of movies here and there, but they are kind of rare occurrences. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to learn the John Ford had made one about some action on the New York frontier. It was an even more pleasant surprise to discover this hidden film was actually quite good.
Ford’s first film in color (the existing print is an Eastman duplicate of the Technicolor original, making it far drabber in color than it was originally) is really about the formation of a community through the years of the Revolution, about the forming of America writ small. That is centered on Gil (Henry Fonda) and Lana (Claudette Colbert) Martin. Gil is a frontier man who travels east to Albany to marry the rich and sheltered Lana, immediately taking her back to his remote cabin on his patch of land. After a trying night where she has trouble accepting her new reality, they take to the land as well as they can, getting to know their neighbors and prepping for potential hostilities with the British and their new Indian allies a few years into the Revolution.
Their idyllic life is torn apart when one hundred Indians led by the British officer Caldwell (John Carradine) descend on the Martin property during a communal land clearing, driving the entire population into the nearby fort where the women hunker down and from whence the men go out, armed as a militia, in pursuit, finding nothing after miles of chase. Gil and Lana return to their homestead, finding it burned to nothing, and a choice is upon them. They can scrabble together to try and create something from the ashes alone, or they can take a position on the farm of the local widow Sarah McKlennar (Edna May Oliver). Necessity drives them to McKlennar, a hard-lived woman who cares not a whit for politics and only wishes to keep her farm running. She’s happy to have two hardworking tenants take up the original cabin on her property and farm the land and do the housekeeping.
The pair are on their way to re-establish their independence with Gil managing the farm well and successfully when word of an incursion into the area spreads. Gil joins up with the militia and heads out to fight. The fight is a success, but it carries a heavy price. When the militia limps back to the community, despite the victory, the men who fought are all showing signs of shock. Gil stares off into space and blandly describes the horrifying sights he say, like the tearing up of a comrade’s face, with Lana in tears trying to treat his wounds. This mature take on warfare, not dismissing it as pointless but also treating it as a real thing with real effects on people who get involved, is similar to how Ford had treated the successful U-boat battle in Submarine Patrol. There’s a respect for the sacrifices involved that I really feel helps deepen the material.
The final third of the film is centered around a final British incursion into the area where the community must retreat to the fort, fight off the invading horde, and wait as their defenses steadily fail for the regular troops several miles away to come upon them. At this point, Gil and Lana have a young son, and we get the whole community together in one place facing real danger. It’s tense and borderline terrifying as the protective walls grow smaller with the passing of the night. An added bit of tension is included when Gil has to sneak out of the fort to go the several miles, by foot, to the next fort over and draw out the American troops there.
The movie ends on a wonderfully touching note as the American regulars arrive with the new nation’s flag, the first time these people on the frontier have seen it. They had been fighting for themselves firstly, but they had also been a small part of the larger fight for independence. They embrace the new flag as their own, raising it quickly to the top of the fort, cementing the creation of this new nation through their blood, sweat, and tears, giving them greater meaning to their sacrifices.
Adapted from a novel of the same name by Walter D. Edmonds, the film does have a certain abbreviated feel to the action, skipping over seasons quickly where it’s obvious things have changed (Gil going from new hire to successfully feted happens during a dissolve, for instance). I could see the adaptation going another half hour to provide more meat to the bones of the film, but that’s not how Ford was working back then. He wanted the story efficiently told first and foremost, and that he did.
Handsomely produced, surprisingly affecting, and well-acted from a troupe of actors, most of whom were familiar with Ford at that point, Drums Along the Mohawk was a very nice discovery in this trek through the man’s body of work.