Every eight years or so, I watch Drums Along the Mohawk to see if it gets any better. According to my cursory notes from my last viewing, it apparently has gotten a little bit better. As the titles rolled, I was hopeful–it is John Ford after all (his first color film) and screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien have both written some excellent films. But it’s rocky from the start. The most film’s most rewarding aspect is seeing Ford get comfortable with filming in color. His composition for the opening is problematic, like he’s trying to fit as much into the frame as possible to showcase the lush colors. For the first fifteen or twenty minutes (one of the nicest things about Drums is how fast it moves), it looks like Post-Impressionist. The colors are so vibrant, they distract from the actors.
And the actors are where Drums Along the Mohawk has problems. The film starts with Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda getting married. The rapid-fire pacing gives them a few minutes–a scene working together in the fields and it’s a fine enough scene–to get a reasonable chemistry going. They don’t. The fault seems to lie with Colbert, who’s either entirely wrong for the role or just terrible. It’s hard to tell, because there isn’t a single moment where Colbert doesn’t appear to be a porcelain doll. Her hair and make-up are always perfect (until the scene where she has to shoot at the attacking Indians–and by then, in the third act, it’s far too late to make up for it). Fonda fares better, but only because Trotti and Levien give him an amazing monologue about the nature of war. But Fonda’s not the film’s focus and in many ways, Colbert isn’t either.
Drums Along the Mohawk is a melodrama; it’s event after event after event. There’s some implied nuance–like Jack-o’-lanterns at a wedding–but the film’s sets and costuming are fantastic, so it’s a totally different department working on such additions. The script only approaches subtly a couple times–first, during that field scene and, second (and fair more successfully), with Edna May Oliver and Ward Bond. Oliver’s the feisty widow who can’t stop talking about her passed husband and–in a great scene–makes a couple marauding Indians preserve her bed while they’re burning down her house. Bond’s comically flirtatious in their first scene together, but it soon develops into what appears to be a discreet and touching romance.
The rest of the film’s acting is fine. Jessie Ralph’s in it, she’s always good. John Carradine’s wasted as a villainous Tory.
As the film progresses, Ford’s use of color flourishes. There’s a magnificent chase scene with Fonda on the run, the action only taking up the bottom fourth of the screen, the rest filled with clouds. The film’s eventually unimaginable in black and white, it simply wouldn’t make any sense–quite a difference from the opening scenes.
There’s a general competency to the script, combined with a good performance from Fonda (the script really doesn’t give him much to do save that one scene) and Ford’s direction, Drums Along the Mohawk passes. It’s just a shame they didn’t get a female actor appropriate for Colbert’s role… who knows how it would have turned out.
Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien, based on the novel by Walter D. Edmonds; directors of photography, Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Alfred Newman; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Claudette Colbert (Lana), Henry Fonda (Gilbert Martin), Edna May Oliver (Mrs. McKlennar), Eddie Collins (Christian Reall), John Carradine (Caldwell), Dorris Bowdon (Mary Reall), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Weaver), Arthur Shields (Reverend Rosenkrantz), Robert Lowery (John Weaver), Roger Imhof (Gen. Nicholas Herkimer), Francis Ford (Joe Boleo) and Ward Bond (Adam Hartman).