Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): John Ford’s First Color Film

A patriotic tribute to the pioneering spirit, “Drums Along the Mohawk,” John Ford’s first film in color is not one of his best dramatically, but it’s certainly a major achievement visually, with stunning pictorial values.  


Based on the novel by Walker D. Edmonds, adapted to the screen by Lamar Trotti, it’s a stirring chronicle of the trials of a young couple setting up home in an isolated farming community.  The tale stars Henry Fonda as Gilbert Martin and Claudette Colbert as Lana, his newly wed wife in Upstate New York, but their honeymoon is interrupted by the Revolutionary War.  They witness with pain their cabin destroyed and their precious wheat burnt yet they’re determined to hold on to the land.


Not many Hollywood films have dealt with the subject, and depsite being sketchy and episodic, omitting crucial chapters from the book, “Drums Along the Mohawks” is one of the better efforts.


The sequence in which Fonda races two Mohawks in a cross-country marathon in order to bring help to the beleaguered fort is one of the memorable ones, and so is the long monologue in which he relates the horrors of a battle he had just seen.


Some humor is supplied by the Oscar-nominated character actress Edna May Oliver, as a tough yet kindly matron, who shines in a scene in which she confronts a band of marauding Indians.


The secondary cast includes some of the most reliable actors in Ford’s troupe, such as John Carradine, Arthur Shields, Francis Ford, and ward Bond.


In the same year, Ford made the sublime black-and-white adult Western, “Stagecoach,” which was nominated for Best Picture.


Oscar Alert


Oscar Nominations: 2


Supporting Actress; Edna May Oliver

Cinematography (color): Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon


Oscar Awards: None


Oscar Context


The winner of the Supporting Actress Oscar was Hattie McDaniel for “Gone With the Wind,” which swept most of the Oscars that year, including Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), and Best cinmeatography for Ray Rennahan (in another nomination) and Ernest Haller.