Friday 14 December 2007

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) John Ford

Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz weren't the only films in 1939 to get the Technicolor treatment. Another example is Drums Along the Mohawk, which suffers mostly from something as unfair as its year of release. After all, it's a period John Ford western, with stars of the calibre of Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, not to mention Edna May Oliver. It merely came out the same year as Stagecoach, another Ford and one of the greatest westerns ever made, and so gets overlooked in comparison, Technicolor or no.

Fonda and Colbert play a young couple, Gil and Lana Martin, who get married at the beginning of the film and then immediately pack their wagon, hitch up a cow and head on out to Mohawk Valley, to a place called Deerfield. I have no idea where Mohawk Valley is except that it's certainly out west where there be Indians. Given that they start in Albany and don't travel for too long, I'm guessing that it's somewhere in upstate New York.

The first Indian we meet is a friend, and a Christian too, but Lana goes into hysterics at the sight. Frontier life is not quite what she expected, but she gradually gets used to it. For a while everything looks good and the future rosy, but we're at the beginning of the American War of Independence. The Tories are apparently working with the Indians and soon the Martin place is burned out in an Indian attack and Lana loses her baby.

After that the Martins go to work for an elderly widow, Mrs McKlennar. As much as both top billed Colbert and Fonda (who was Ford's chief star at the time, the previous film for both of them being Young Mr Lincoln and the next one being The Grapes of Wrath) are excellent in their roles, they're both completely upstaged by Edna May Oliver as Mrs McKlennar. In fact this was so regular an occurrence that it's become something of a treat for me to watch Edna May upstage someone new. I ought to make a checklist of all the great actors of the era and cross them off one at a time as they get themselves upstaged by her.

She won a highly justified Oscar nomination for her performance here, late in her career, but she lost like so many worthy candidates in 1939 and did well to even get as far as a nomination. The winner of the Best Supporting Actress award was Hattie McDaniel for Gone with the Wind, the only win for that film that actually makes sense to me. The only other nomination this film obtained was for its cinematography, and it lost out in the colour category to, you guessed it, Gone with the Wind, but one of the two cinematographers was the same for both films anyway: Ray Rennahan.

This is a John Ford film and I've learned enough by now to have recognised it as such even had I not seen the credits. It seems that every John Ford western has three things: Ward Bond, a horizon that moves around depending on what we should be focusing on and a preponderence of ritual. We begin here with a marriage and quickly finds its way to military drills, frontier custom and church services, and eventually on to the expected dances. Ford could find ritual anywhere, and that makes him one of the best chroniclers of American history on film.

Unfortunately the story doesn't quite live up to the people involved in it. The Americans living on the frontier are fleshed out nicely, but the enemy are not. You'll have to watch carefully to see any of the British beyond the horrendously stereotypical John Carradine, who even has an eyepatch. The Indians are far more frequent but they're as badly stereotyped. All but one are heathen savages with no redeeming anything, and the sole exception is an idiot. There's also a blatantly jingoistic scene at the end with the Stars and Stripes which is embarrassing to watch. That's at least a little more forgiveable, as this was 1939 and war was on the horizon (though still not that close for Americans).

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