Thursday, July 2, 2009
“Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939) leads us into our weekend celebrations of Independence Day, and is one of the few movies of Hollywood’s heyday to deal with the American Revolution. Surprisingly so, since one would expect that the intrigue and drama of the era, not to say the very patriotism of the theme, would lend itself to films of the day. Perhaps the studios perceived the subject was too remote, too far past to be appealing to modern audiences, the people and manners too colorless. Director John Ford’s vibrant movie does much to dispel the ideal that the forefathers were saintly heroes and the Revolution a foregone conclusion.
This early Technicolor film is beautifully shot, and the muted pastel tones are much more realistic and pleasing to look at than the garish “red shirt photography” of the 1940s musicals that would follow. The score is peppered with 18th century fife and drum music, and country fiddle tunes (and a liberal smattering of “In an English Country Garden” to designate the gentility of Claudette Colbert’s refined family heritage).
Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert are frontier newlyweds when the frontier was still in New York. Fonda looks good in knee breeches and always looks authentic in period settings, no matter what the period. Claudette Colbert, even more like a porcelain doll in this rough setting of log cabin, appears as she always does; a loveliness of no certain age, but perhaps a bit too glamorous.
The movie is stolen outright by Edna May Oliver, who received an Oscar nomination for her role as the feisty widow who the young newlyweds come to work for as servants when the Indians burn their own homestead and crops to the ground.
The story is comprised of events, rather than a linear beginning, middle and conclusion. The frontier settlement, always battling the Indians, gets word of the colonists’ revolt against the English king. They think it’s a swell idea, and drill in ragtag formation, ready to fire upon any redcoats, but the British domination of North America in this movie is just John Carradine as a menacing Tory leading bands of Indians in waves against the township’s lonely fort.
Miss Colbert, the daughter of a fine family, must adjust to the roughhewn ways of her new neighbors and her new life. She and Fonda suffer privations and tragedies. Their bond, as actually occurred with many frontier couples, is strengthened from necessity of self reliance as much as from being in love.
There are humorous moments in the film, such as when the minister, Arthur Shields, half prays for and half reprimands a local girl for keeping company with a New Englander, “he’s a Massachusetts man, Lord, and Thou knowest no good can come of that.” He also prays for a man with the flux “real bad” and gives a commercial for a local merchant. And when he announces that the militia be formed, “Every man failing to report for duty will be promptly hanged. Amen.”
Ward Bond, another Ford regular, is the lusty, barrel-chested, booming-voiced bachelor who teases Edna May Oliver, and she gives it right back to him. John Ford always seemed to have given as much attention to the character actors as to the stars, which may be why they are so memorable in his films. At one point Bond, some 20 years her junior, playfully plants a kiss on a surprised Miss Oliver that, in its ferocity and very length is probably one of the most passionate kisses on the silver screen. I half expect that if the couple were Fonda and Colbert, the Code would not have allowed the kiss to last that long, but because the characters are supposed to be comic, Ford, and Bond and Oliver, get away with it.
But Edna May Oliver is more than just comic foil in this movie. She gets a chance to display her considerable dramatic talents, and the inherent drama in her each slight movement provides depth and texture to her role. Sometimes the ability to make a moment seem both comic and dramatic at the same time is like laying a perfect bunt down the third base line. It’s a thing of tantalizing beauty when it works.
Miss Oliver does this in such scenes as when Fonda is about to join a column of troops passing by her stone cottage, and she bids him goodbye first so that he can spend another few moments with his wife.
“I’m going to kiss you, so I better do it now so’s you won’t go off with the taste of a widow on your mouth.” Afterward, she comes indoors to keep from watching the men march away, reminded of her late husband, “Sometimes he’d wave…ten to one he didn’t even see me.” Her voice drops wearily, and the comic moment becomes tension-filled, and then simply philosophical.
Another moment finds both Colbert and Oliver on a porch at night, waiting for news of the battle. Colbert paces, finally is persuaded to sit on the step of the porch as Oliver, planted in a chair behind her, flaps a palmetto fan at mosquitoes. The contrast between the two actresses is interesting. Colbert is still, like a pristine statue, looking dreamily off. Miss Oliver hunches forward, her legs spread apart under her long skirts, resting her elbows on her knees, her chin on her hand in a brooding manner much less lady-like. She uses her whole body. Miss Oliver is living her role, while Miss Colbert is seems merely posed for the camera.
But the comedy is never too deeply buried, and bubbles up in Miss Oliver like a stream, as when the tobacco-chewing frontiersman comes to her door and tells her all families must flee to the fort. It’s a tense moment, but seeing he needs to spit his tobacco juice, Edna gets irritably practical,
“Go on and spit, man! Spit and get it over with!” She shoves him out the door so he can do so outside, and then mutters, trying to conceal her alarm about the approaching enemy, “Fool. He can’t even spit by himself.” In her crusty way, she is sensitive to life where Colbert is only hypersensitive to sounds and smells, and possible danger.
When Fonda and the troops march off in the distance, Colbert watches in the foreground, her back to us, from the rise of a sunny meadow. It’s a scene repeated in other Ford films like “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Fort Apache”, and “My Darling Clementine.”
The film turns from a study of frontier life to an action flick. Fonda, dragged from the rain and the mud, babbles to himself as he describes the gore of battle while Colbert tries to stop his bleeding and tries not to listen to him. It is her best scene where, distracted from posing, she appears most natural.
A man, sent to get help, is captured and tortured, and the horrified minister shoots him to keep him from suffering when the Indians burn him to death. Fonda is sent next to get help, and the women huddled in the fort don men’s uniforms to make the enemy think the fort is well defended by soldiers. This has precedence in many instances during the Revolution and in the French and Indian War when women took on a soldier’s role, sometimes donning soldier’s uniforms.
Even Daisy, Miss Oliver’s black house servant, dons a uniform and loads muskets. Edna May fires her gun, and takes an arrow in the chest, takes it like a man.
One wonders if the Indians were surprised that the “soldiers” were still wearing their frilly day caps underneath their tricorn hats.
The Indians depicted here are all “savages” except one; that is the character called Blue Back, played by Chief John Big Tree. He is a Christian convert, what were once called “praying Indians”, and so is friendly to the settlers. One could excuse Ford’s making the enemy Indians “savages” and the “good Indian” as the one who befriends the settlers, because that is how English-speaking settlers in the 18th century would have viewed the matter themselves. The year 1939, when this film was made, was too early for the revisionist history that attempts to make modern films on historical subjects less bigoted, if perhaps also sometimes less accurate in depicting the true (if sometimes repugnant) feelings of our ancestors.
However, Blue Back could have been a stronger, more well-rounded character, and Ford might have shown the immense conflict of what it must have been to have his feet planted in two different worlds. Unfortunately, Blue Back is little more than a clown who hollers “Hallelujah” at unexpected moments. Ironically, as a member of the Seneca nation, Chief John Big Tree is probably the most authentic link to the locale of the film.
The film ends with the fort being saved and the news that the British surrendered. That means the British lost the war. What they do not know, and the colonists all might have wondered for at least another generation, was who won the war? Who were the Americans?
John Ford brings the film to a rousing close with the strains of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (which since those lyrics had not been written yet, was still “God Save the King”, an odd choice), and the camera pans on the Americans of this frontier outpost admiring the raising of their new American flag atop the church steeple. Separation of church and state hadn’t been invented yet.
The camera lingers on, among others, the smiling face of Daisy, the African-American servant of Edna May Oliver, played by Beulah Hall Jones (in the last of only a few films she made). Daisy could have been a freewoman, but at this time it is more likely she was a slave. Her expression of breathless hope and satisfaction looking at the new flag is quite surprisingly moving. The camera lingers on Chief John Big Tree, also admiring the flag. Is it Ford’s way of showing we’re all happy Americans now, or Ford’s subtle irony that “freedom” and “equality” would have to wait for some people? Flawed, and diverse, if not equal, they all take in the moment to celebrate the new nation.
I hope you can take a moment this weekend to celebrate it, too. By the way, among the flags that finale color guard is holding appears to be the flag of New England (see this post from my New England Travels blog). Apparently, the reverend’s warning against consorting with New Englanders (or perhaps only Massachusetts men) was suspended for the moment.