Sunday, June 15, 2014

Drums Along the Mohawk - 1939



The film stars Henry Fonda farmer Gilbert Martin, who, in 1776, has returned with his wife, Lana, to his small cabin in the Mohawk Valley. At first uneasy to deal with the harsh physical challenges of frontier life, Lana adjusts to farm work and is soon able to help her husband in the fields. Shortly after they learn that the colonies are at war with the British, their farmhouse is attacked and burned to the ground by a party of Tory-led Indians. The energetic Widow McKlennar hires and shelters the couple, but soon after the Indians invade their community once more. Thus, men join the militia and try to win their independence from Britain, and defend their community against the crude wilderness and its dwellers. In the end, the war has finished and the Old Glory is on the top of the church tower. The American nation is born.


This 1939 Western adventure is directed by John Ford, and is one of his typical looks into the American history of the frontier. The story is based on a book with the same title by Walter D. Edmonds. Its music is composed by Alfred Newman. The actors include Henry Fonda as Gilbert Martin, Claudette Colbert as Lana, and Edna May Oliver (with her typical role play as an energetic masculine woman).


The film is made in 1939; however, it is a broken mirror through which to see the American Wars of Independence. The American frontier life during the colonial period, with all its hardships and dangers, is the theme of the film. One American community is built in the Mohawk Valley in New York and the people have farm-life there. Although of the Revolutionary American era, the film mainly focuses on how whites and Indians encounter each other, with obviously depicting the Indians as untamable savages who have no mercy on white colonists.


Any historical account is informed by personal taste and prejudices. Reviewing history books gives us knowledge of the story of colonial America becoming a nation. No doubt, the accounts by different historians differ in details, but the essence remains significantly the same in almost all of them. However, to learn history form the viewpoint of the silver screen is another story.
Steven Mintz in his review of the book "Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies" -edited by Mark C. Carnes- talks of the "films' role in the construction of cultural memory". In the so-called "United States of Amnesia" the history is easily distorted, disfigured, clad-in-love scenes and presented to the audience; beautiful it is to notice how the audience digest it as authentic. If you have a look at the non-professional review section in you will find the tragic reality come true. Many have found it a historical narration. Some have even advised history fans to go and watch it! This is the process of constructing "cultural memory" by an insignificant film of 67 years ago up to the present. This is "gap of representation" in the medium of movie.

Mintz also quotes the distinguished anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace criticizing the inadequacy of the film even in reproducing the original book, by adding that the film is a failure in "its depiction of Native Americans as stupid or savage killers...." The simple binary division of good/bad, savage/Christian Indian is one of the greatest flaws of the film, though the audience might endorse it.

Being Ford's first color film, Drums along the Mohawk, nonetheless, is a failed attempt to convert black/white coloring of the story into a gray continuum of characterization. All American whites are heroic able-minded men and women who withstand hardships to witness the birth of their nation. They are simple villagers, but in their hearts, they surrender to the savage wilderness; they are, in case of Lana, well-bred people who adjust to the situation for the sake of unity, love and future of their land.

The other issue of high import is that in a colonial community of immigrants inevitably different European origins have a stake; but in this film barely you might come across a German or Irish immigrant within the community. This clearly proves the partiality of John Ford.

The other interesting point about the movie is the same theme of patriotism, fear of Indians and other invaders and the military power of the immigrants during the colonial period. Set in the time of the American Revolutionary War, the film is not only a means of
re-presenting history, but also indicative of what is going on in the time film is being produced.
Such social factors as the Great Depression and the World War II had their influence upon the narrative of the film; Americans were confused as what their role was both internally and universally; and this was the time when more than ever myths came to help the American psyche find its way.

According to Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies (American Dream, global Nightmare, 2004, p.32)American history is infused with fears and threats, and the American film industry takes the responsibility to remind Americans of such fears, when needed. Thus, it is regarded as a myth-making device on the eve of the Second World War. Americans should first be scared, and then called into action.

Back to the issue of Indian Americans, it is evident throughout the film that only one Indian is presented as good, one who is Christianized and helps the colonists. Others are heartless giants who are stereotypically malign, blood-thirsty and stupid. Ward Churchill, in his paper "Smoke Signals: a History of Native Americans in Cinema", points to this fact that Indians are depicted so because they have never had any voice in American film industry. Interestingly, he makes it clear that even when Indians were given trivial roles they were ordered to wear heavy bleaching make-ups in order not to annoy the audience.

The last point is that while the song "My Country" (which is heard at the last scene of the film as a sign of American nation being born) is a patriotic one, it highly resembles the British national anthem. What this might convey? Of course, Ford is no fool not to understand the similarity of the two. Instead it seems that in 1939 it signals a future possibility of the United States becoming ally to the Great Britain in the World War II. Also, it adds to the patriotic theme of the film, thus provoking the patriotic emotions of the Americans on the brink of WW II.


Highly propagandist in nature, Drums along the Mohawk is
well-situated on the eve of the Second World War. The American psyche once anointed with fear gets flexible before being introduced to a new missionary period. The Indians represent the European enemies, while the colonists are the contemporary Americans who should join the militia to defend not only their country but also their very values.

It should be noted, however, that the film is worthy of being seen; not only because of its implications but also because it is one of the first color films ever produced.

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