Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): John Ford’s First Color Film, Historical Tale, Starring Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, Edna May Oliver (in Oscar Nominated Turn)

A patriotic tribute to the American 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.

Drums Along the Mohawk

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, whose honeymoon is interrupted by the Revolutionary War.

Before long, they witness with pain how their cabin gets 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 despite being sketchy and episodic, omitting crucial chapters from the book, Drums Along the Mohawk still 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.

Like other Ford films, Drums Along the Mohawk is very loosely based on historical events.  Some sources state that attacks on settlements in the Mohawk Valley lacked a historical basis; they were included in the film because Ford wanted to perpetuate the mythology.

Ford minimized the British role due to the political context in 1939. He knew that war with Germany was coming, and he had no desire to show the British as villains when they were fighting for their lives against the Nazis.

The “American” or rebel forces in the film were, in fact, more ethnically and nationally diverse than portrayed. The settlers in the Mohawk Valley included German-speaking and Dutch.

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

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 cinematography for Ray Rennahan (in another nomination) and Ernest Haller.


Claudette Colbert as Magdalena[a] “Lana” Borst Martin
Henry Fonda as Gilbert “Gil” Martin
Edna May Oliver as Sarah McKlennar
Eddie Collins as Christian Reall
John Carradine as Caldwell
Ward Bond as Adam Helmer
Roger Imhof as Gen. Nicholas Herkimer
Arthur Shields as Rev. Rosenkrantz
Chief John Big Tree as Blue Back
Francis Ford as Joe Boleo
Jessie Ralph as Mrs. Weaver
Robert Lowery as John Weaver
Kay Linaker as Mrs. Demooth
Russell Simpson as Dr. Petry
Spencer Charters as Innkeeper
Tom Tyler as Capt. Morgan (uncredited)

Directed by John Ford
Screenplay by Sonya Levien, Lamar Trotti, based on Drums Along the Mohawk, 1936 novel by Walter D. Edmonds
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Cinematography Bert Glennon, Ray Rennahan
Edited by Robert L. Simpson
Music by Alfred Newman
Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Release date: November 3, 1939

Running time: 103 minutes
Budget over $2 million