Drums Along the Mohawk [1939]

Nineteen thirty-nine is often proposed as the movies' halcyon year, and three reasons why were directed by John Ford: Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk. In that exalted company Drums... would have to be accounted "merely superb"--even if it's the best film ever made about the American Revolution and, oh, only about eighth-best picture of its year. Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert play newlyweds in New York's Mohawk Valley at the time of the Revolutionary War. That war is more a distant rumor than a direct concern of people with cabins to raise, crops to harvest, and firstborn on the way. When it comes to their valley, in the form of hitherto-peaceable Indians whipped up by a gaunt Tory with an eyepatch (John Carradine), life changes as though with the passing of a cloud shadow. In this, his first color film, Ford created indelible images of the dawning of America: a lone wagon making its way through acres of long grass rippling in the wind; the Indians, at the onset of their first raid, seeming to materialize out of the mist, out of the very trunks of trees; a ragged line of farmers with flintlocks passing along a split-rail fence, then resolving into a column, an army, marching toward a distant horizon. (Utah's Wasatch mountain country stands in persuasively for upstate New York in pioneer days.) Edna May Oliver scored a best-supporting-actress Oscar nomination as a memorably crusty frontier widow, while Ward Bond--oddly omitted from the opening credits--claimed a place of honor in the John Ford Stock Company playing Fonda's best friend. --Richard T. Jameson

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