Drums Along the Mohawk is a 1939 historical Technicolor film based upon a 1936 novel of the same name by American author, Walter D. Edmonds. The film was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by John Ford. Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert portray settlers on the New York frontier during the American Revolution. The couple suffer British, Tory, and Indian attacks on their farm before the Revolution ends and peace is restored. The filmâ"Ford's first color featureâ"was well received, was nominated for two Academy Awards and became a major box office success, grossing over US$1 million in its first year.
In colonial America, Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert), the eldest daughter of a wealthy Albany, New York family, marries Gilbert Martin (Henry Fonda). Together they leave her family's luxurious home to embark on a frontier life on Gil's small farm in Deerfield, in the Mohawk Valley of central New York. The time is July, 1776, and the spirit of revolution is in the air. The valley's settlers have formed a local militia in anticipation of an imminent war, and Gil joins up.
As Gil and his neighbors are clearing his land for farming, Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree), a friendly Oneida Indian, arrives to warn them that a raiding party of Seneca Indians led by a Tory named Caldwell (John Carradine) is in the valley. The settlers evacuate their farms and take refuge in nearby Fort Schuyler. Lana, who is pregnant, miscarries during the frantic ride to the fort. The Martin farm is destroyed by the Indians. With no home and winter approaching, the Martins accept work on the farm of a wealthy widow, Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver).
During a peaceful interlude, Mrs. McKlennar and the Martins prosper. Then, word comes that a large force of British soldiers and Indians is approaching the valley. The militia sets out westward to intercept the attackers; but their approach is badly timed and the party is ambushed. Though the enemy is eventually defeated at Oriskany, more than half of the militiamen are killed. Gil returns home, wounded and delirious, but slowly recovers. Lana is again pregnant and delivers a son in May, as Indian and Tory raiding parties burn and pillage farms and small settlements all through the summer. The harvest is small, and while Mrs. McKlennarâs stone house is not burned, there is barely enough food to survive the winter. Lana bears her second child, another son, the following August. The raids continue but the crops fair much better, so there is plenty to eat that winter, although the cold is severe.
After the spring thaw the British and their Indian allies mount a major attack to take the valley, and the settlers again take refuge in the fort. Mrs. McKlennar is mortally wounded and ammunition runs short. Gil makes an heroic dash through enemy lines to secure help from nearby Fort Dayton. Reinforcements arrive just in time to beat back the attackers, who are about to overwhelm the fort. The militia then pursues, harasses, and defeats the British force, scattering its surviving soldiers in the wilderness. The Mohawk Valley is saved.
Three years later, with the war over, Gil and Lana return to their farm at Deerfield. They now have a third child (a baby girl), and they look forward to a happy and peaceful life in the valley as citizens of the new, independent United States of America.
- Henry Fonda as Gilbert "Gil" Martin
- Claudette Colbert as Magdelana "Lana" Martin
- Edna May Oliver as Mrs. McKlennar
- John Carradine as Caldwell
- Ward Bond as Adam Helmer
- Roger Imhof as Gen. Nicholas Herkimer
- Arthur Shields as Rev. Rosenkrantz
- Chief John Big Tree as Blue Back
- Francis Ford as Joe Boleo
- Jessie Ralph as Mrs. Weaver
- Robert Lowery as John Weaver
- Kay Linaker as Mrs. Demooth
- Russell Simpson as Dr. Petry
- Spencer Charters as Innkeeper
Like most of John Ford's films, Drums Along the Mohawk is loosely based on historical events. A central feature of the plot is the Battle of Oriskany, a pivotal engagement of the Saratoga campaign during the American Revolutionary War, in which a British contingent drove southward from Canada in an attempt to occupy the Hudson Valley and divide Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts from the remaining colonies. A smaller force invaded the Mohawk Valley as a diversion, but the siege of Fort Schuyler depicted in the film had no direct historical counterpart. The actual fort besieged during the battle â" Fort Stanwix â" was situated far from any civilian settlements and was attacked by British and Hessian soldiers, not Indians, and defended by Continental Army soldiers, not militiamen. The raids on settlements in the valley likewise lacked a historical basis; but "a key element of frontier life for Hollywood is Indian raids", and Ford felt obliged to include several of them.
The film portrays only Indians and Tories as antagonists; British soldiers are seldom referenced or seen. While local Iroquois tribes did fight on the loyalist side in the Mohawk Valley, Indians were a minor factor compared to the British Army. Ford chose to minimize the British role because of the political situation in 1939: "He knew that war with Germany was coming, and he had little desire to show the British as villains when they were fighting for their lives against the Nazis."
Frank S. Nugent reviewed the film for the New York Times of November 4, 1939 and wrote, "Walter D. Edmonds's exciting novel of the Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution has come to the...screen in a considerably elided, but still basically faithful, film edition bearing the trademark of Director John Ford...It is romantic enough for any adventure-story lover. It has its humor, its sentiment, its full complement of blood and thunder...a first-rate historical film, as rich atmospherically as it is in action...Mr. Fonda and Miss Colbert have done rather nicely with the Gil and Lana Martin...Miss Oliver could not have been bettered as the warlike Widow McKlennar...Mr. Shields's Rev. Rosenkrantz...Mr. Imhof's General Herkimer, Mr. Collins's Christian Reall, Spencer Charters's landlord, Ward Bond's Adam Helmer...They've matched the background excellently, all of them."
Academy Award nominations
The film was nominated for two awards: Best Supporting Actress (Edna May Oliver) and Best Cinematography (Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon).
- Drums Along the Mohawk at the American Film Institute Catalog
- Drums Along the Mohawk at the Internet Movie Database
- Drums Along the Mohawk at the TCM Movie Database
- Drums Along the Mohawk at AllMovie