Film Review:Drums Along the Mohawk, John Ford, 1939
"Filthy painted heathens" Widow McClennar
"Takes a cartoonish approach to character and grossly oversimplifies the history of the Revolutionary period". Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford, 2001. 366
"the central Fordian paradox is already implicit in Drums Along the Mohawk: his dedication to the development of civilization that will inevitably render obsolete the very values he celebrates." Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford, 2001. 366
Drums Along the Mohawk, John Ford, 1939
This is Ford's first experience with Technicolor and the cinematography is classic Ford: the wagons silhouetted on the ridgetop, CUT the panoramic vista CUT the close up of the wagon with Fonda and Colbert framed by the covering, their fine eastern clothes dusted by the trail. You can just see him with a glint in his eye as he threw handfuls of dust over them in the name of authenticity. The film also uses a shot of figures silhouetted in a framed doorway which was to gain fame in The Searchers seventeen years later.
The first Native Americans depicted are friendly, they helpfully provide food, but they are rather different to what the uninitiated might expect. They are benign and loyal, perhaps almost childlike in the simplicity of how they perceive what is happening around them. However, those allying with the English are demonic savages, they move with stealth & a common sense of purpose which is at once natural and premeditated, synchronised to the point of being instinctive co-operative behaviour. But when Henry Fonda does a classic mercy dash to get help, implausibly he outinjuns the 3 injuns who pursue him on foot.
Ford uses his sense of history to elicit sardonic humour:
"so that's our flag, that's what we've been fighting for" says a frontiersman, emphasizing that those caught up in events rarely realise their significance. Ford understands that history is retrospective and that the ordinary person is an unwitting participant. He uses this to gain a wistful smile of ironic superiority from the audience. We know more about what happened than those who were there, our view of what happened is informed by hindsight.
While ostensibly about living in the wilderness, almost in the Fennimore Cooper tradition, this film is really about community. Like all Ford Westerns of note, is about duty, and of courage of the ordinary people in adversity, oblivious to the wider repercussions of events in which they are participants. As usual Ford carries this off with a populist sense of humour. His astute observation of human emotions, impulses and motivation always informs his direction.
Much of the unintended irony of General Herniker's line "This is ourland and it's worth fighting for "would have been lost on the contemporary audience but it certainly was not lost on me. It strongly underlines how Fords' films contributed to the preservation and development of the Myth of the West or should I say Myopia of the West. Henry Fonda's I " don't think we'll have any trouble with the Indians. We've always treated them fair, " (Gil Martin) would also be laughable if it were not meant to be serious.
There are some astute observations of humanity in this film which are typical of Ford's genius, but his humanity does not extend to native Americans, who are either friendly and simple or hostile and demonic, thereby corresponding to the two opposite stereotypes as which they have been presented over time. Not only did he kill more Indians than Custer but Ford did as much to promote myths of the West as did the gung ho Colonel. Regrettably Ford's populism did not extend to native Americans, who are, in the typical fashion which he seemed to regret in later life, presented in true stereotypical form.
Although this film has its moments which make it watchable even the excellent biographer Joseph McBride could find little to commend it. It has little to commend it even though it helps to make Ford's work more intelligible as a whole. Kim Newman summed it up as "a second rank film from a first rank film maker ". (Kim Newman, Wild West Movies, 1990, 6 )
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009