Drums Along the Mohawk

Screening on Film
Directed by John Ford.
With Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, Edna May Oliver.
US, 1939, 35mm, color, 104 min.

A kind of pre-Western, Drums Along the Mohawk shifts the location of the frontier between civilization and wilderness from the Southwest to the Northeast—upstate New York during the Revolutionary War, to be precise. In gorgeous Technicolor, Ford presents the story of a young couple trying to make a home in New York’s Mohawk Valley in 1776. Lindsay Anderson notes that the years of 1939 and 1940 constitute Ford’s rediscovery of America, with Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Grapes of Wrath coming in the wake of a number of films set abroad, and especially a rediscovery of the American past. Others have pointed out that Drums should be understood in the context of the American present of 1939. Drums Along the Mohawk reveals a snapshot of American anxiety about the possibility of war on the eve of conflict in Europe. The British are not the primary villains; the Mohawk are. Despite Claudette Colbert being perhaps too glamorous to be a pioneer’s wife, the film abounds with moments that emphasize the important role such women had. (Andrew Sarris identifies Drums as the first panel in a matriarchal trilogy, followed by How Green Was My Valley and Seven Women.)

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