' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Drums Along the Mohawk

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Drums Along the Mohawk

“It was a war party. That means they’re gonna be attacking up and down the frontier.” This is what Hawkeye says to Colonel Munro at the under siege Fort William Henry in Michael Mann’s “Last of the Mohicans.” Hawkeye is referring to the cabin of John and Alexandra Cameron, his friends, a cabin which he and his group have just found ravaged. The Cameron’s Cabin is only seen twice but their story – briefly relayed by Hawkeye to Cora – always seemed particularly strong fodder for a movie. A cabin housing a whole family on the frontier of upstate New York in the midst of the French & Indian War always under threat of raiding Indians and imperialistic troops. John Ford took this idea and expanded on it for first opus in Technicolor in 1939, “Drums Along The Mohawk”, bumping up the timeframe by 19 years to 1776, smack dab in the middle of the War of Independence.

Gil (Henry Fonda) and rich Lana (Claudette Colbert) marry and leave behind her luxurious home in Albany for the farming life in the Mohawk Valley of western New York. She seems unfit for such hard-living at first but quickly adjusts, only to watch their new lives thrown into upheaval when the Indians attack their cabin and other nearby settlements. They escape by the narrowest of margins, fleeing for the haven of nearby Fort Herkimer, and wind up working and living on the farm of a feisty widow (Edna May Oliver). Again things seems to be at peace until the local settlers are all called up as militia, marching off to face doom at the bloody Battle of Oriskany. In the aftermath, Gil staggers home, wounded, and a mortified Lana tends to him, not really hearing him as he recounts the gruesome sights he witnessed. It is the film’s high point, Colbert’s lone great moment, and indicative of the movie’s episodic and, by extension, inconsistent nature.

This is the fifth film of Claudette Colbert’s I have seen and I’ll cop to my true feelings – I’m not a fan. Not even in the more easygoing rom coms, mind you, where she reminds me of a WWII-era Katherine Heigl (all milquetoast, no molasses) and here she is being tasked with morphing from a proper lady of Albany to a rough and ready frontierswoman of the Mohawk Valley. Yet neither Colbert nor the screenplay cultivate anything remotely resembling a transformation. Fonda, while fine as a composed dissident, has no arc and when his big moment at the end finds him running from one fort to another fort to summon help we are left to wonder, “Wait, when did Henry Fonda become the Maurice Green of the frontier?”

Like a great many historical epics it skirts along from event to event, all the while forgetting the greatest lesson of all taught by Michael Mann’s “Last of the Mohicans” (and, yes, I’m aware “Drums Along the Mohawk” came out 53 years before “Last of the Mohicans” but that’s neither here nor there) which is this: personalize. Make it personal. “The whole world (was) on fire” in “Last of the Mohicans” but Mann made it about 7 people and by making it about 7 people and making those 7 people and their problems MATTER it made it feel as if the whole world was at stake. For such a consequential time and place “Drums Along the Mohawks” feels oddly frivolous.

Oh, the movie looks pretty. Does it ever. The costuming is exquisite and the set design is remarkable and the images, well, hey! It’s John Ford! He employs the movie screen as a canvas and uses the Technicolor – that glorious Technicolor – as a brush. The widescreen shot of Colbert watching from afar as the militia marches off down a dirt path to war looks as if you could pluck it right off the celluloid in front of you and hang it in The Met. It seems so right to see the Revolutionary War-era in color because we don’t think of it terms of black & white photos as we do the Civil War, but in terms of colored paintings.

The film opens with the wedding and moves into the married couple becoming part of a scruffy community before closing with the first version of the stars & stripes being raised after the Colonists defeat of the British at Yorktown (Spoiler Alert!!!) and so I suspect Ford’s aim was to show the way in which that sense of community, that sense of the colonies coming together is what led to the birth of a nation. But the through-line to that closing shot, despite occurring during an endlessly tense period, is devoid of real tension or human interest.

At one point when Gil and his fellow settlers are being lectured by their commanding officer, Gil says "I don't think we'll have any trouble with the Indians. We've always been fair to them." If ever a film rang false...


Lasso The Movies said...

Nice job on this review. I haven't watched this movie yet seen though it has been sitting on my shelves for ages. You have inspired me, even if just for the aesthetics. Unlike you, I tend to enjoy Claudette in most of her performances, so I am very hopeful. Thanks for the review.

Nick Prigge said...

Sometimes I feel as if I'm being too harsh on Ms. Colbert but, at the same time, I'm just being honest. I'm sure she was a very nice person.

Thanks for reading!