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The collaboration between John Ford and Henry Fonda proved to be one of the most successful and influential director-star couplings in film history, even if it has since become overshadowed by the filmmaker's work with John Wayne. This is one of three pictures in a row Ford made with the actor who was then his favorite American Everyman the first true "Fordian hero" according to many critics falling between Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Although Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) may not have those films' towering classic status today, it was nevertheless very well received by public and critics alike and helped cement Fonda's growing stardom and his fruitful working relationship with Ford. The two made a total of eight films together over the years until they had a famous falling out during the filming of Fonda's stage success Mister Roberts (1955). (Ford is credited as one of three directors on How the West Was Won, 1962, but George Marshall directed the segment of that epic in which Fonda appeared.)
Drums Along the Mohawk is an exciting and fascinating depiction of a period in history rarely represented on film; it takes place just prior to the Revolutionary War in the late 18th century. It even fits readily into Ford's Western repertoire, but roughly a century earlier, when the frontier was still just the western areas of the original colonies. Fonda plays a young pioneer farmer who brings his city-bred bride (Claudette Colbert in an uncharacteristic role) to the wild Mohawk Valley in upstate New York. Their efforts to endure the hardship of frontier life are complicated by marauding Indians, stirred up by ruthless British commanders bent on undermining the growing independence movement in the colonies. Left homeless after one brutal attack, the newlyweds take refuge with a spunky widow (the comical Edna May Oliver) until further attacks force them and their neighbors to take refuge in a fort. With the settlers facing annihilation by an Indian siege, Fonda makes a break to seek reinforcements, providing one of the film's most thrilling scenes as he outruns a band of Indians to a nearby fort.
Although set in western New York, Drums Along the Mohawk was actually shot primarily in Utah, where weather conditions (including relentless rain and constantly changing light) initially caused serious delays and budget overruns, much to the anxiety of producer Darryl F. Zanuck and his production managers. Budget issues were complicated by such factors as the need to cut miles of roads into the 11,000-foot-high location and to construct a large fort and several frontier homes. Props and costumes were not readily available since the producing studio, Fox, had not specialized in historical films on this epic scale before or set in this time period. Instead of reproducing the outmoded flintlock muskets used at the time of the Revolution, 100 of them were located in Ethiopia, purchased and transported to Utah for the production. Tensions with the studio bosses were not helped any by Ford's insistence on having a piano transported from a Utah town to the remote location.
The location shooting paid off, however, in handsome color cinematography by Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan, who received Academy Award nominations for their work. (The other Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, went to Edna May Oliver as the defiant matriarch Mrs. McKlennar.) This was the first color film for both Ford and Colbert, who photographed well despite her initial fears about how she would look in the Technicolor process. Fonda had already gained Technicolor experience with Jesse James (1939), but he did have to make one concession to Ford's concept by growing his hair unfashionably long for the 1930s to achieve a more authentic eighteenth century colonial look.
As production wound on and delays increased, it became apparent that there would be major problems shooting the key scene of a major battle fought against the British in 1777. Zanuck badgered Ford daily with telegrams demanding to know what preparations had been made for the scene, which was scheduled for three weeks shooting. To solve the dilemma, Ford simply sat Fonda down, trained a camera on him and asked him questions about the battle. Fonda improvised brilliantly in character, describing the entire battle in the minutest detail. When they were done, Ford instructed the editors to cut out his questions and run the scene as one long take of the character relating his experience at war a handy way to skirt the production issue and one of the film's more effective scenes.
Drums Along the Mohawk is one of three films Fonda made based on the writing of Walter D. Edmonds, who specialized in historical novels set in his native New York state. The other two were The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935) and Chad Hanna (1940).
Director: John Ford
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Sonya Levien, Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Walter D. Edmonds
Cinematography: Bert Glennon, Ray Rennahan
Editing: Robert Simpson
Art Direction: Richard Day, Mark-Lee Kirk
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Henry Fonda (Gil Martin), Claudette Colbert (Lana Martin), Edna May Oliver (Mrs. McKlennar), John Carradine (Caldwell), Ward Bond (Adam Hartman).
by Rob Nixon