1939’s “Drums Along the Mohawk”: The Fight for Independence
Although we sometimes slip up calling this holiday the 4th of July instead of Independence Day, this name diminishes its meaning. After all, it’s the anniversary of one of the most significant events in American history, the Declaration of Independence, which marked the beginning of the freedom the United States has enjoyed for nearly two centuries. and half.
During Hollywood’s Golden Age (1934–1954), costume films, especially historical dramas, were popular. However, filmmakers often opted for 19th-century stories and settings because the costumes were not only flattering and in many ways simpler than previous fashions, but there was simply more costume that studios could reuse – make extras in clothing and supporting characters. cheap.
One of the few Golden Age films about the American Revolutionary War is “Drums along the Mohawk”, a 1939 20th Century Fox production. In the 1930s, 20th Century Fox was the one of the smallest studios in Hollywood and it didn’t have the budgets of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. or Warner Bros. However, by the end of the decade, Shirley Temple’s highly profitable films had contributed to the studio’s bottom line, so it could afford to “hire” big-name stars like Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda.
Following the life of a young couple in colonial America, this story shows how the struggle for independence demanded great sacrifices from every citizen of the colonies. It is on such selfless sacrifice that our nation was founded.
The story begins with the wedding of Gil Martin (Fonda) and Lana Borst (Colbert). Lana leaves the comfort of her wealthy family’s home for her new husband’s rustic farmhouse in Deerfield. It’s only a small claim in central New York’s Mohawk Valley, but Gil and Lana are determined to make it a success. However, the locals expected trouble from the hostile Seneca Indians, who were allied with their political enemies, the British sympathetic Conservatives. When the Martins further cleared their land, the Indians attacked and all the inhabitants had to seek refuge in the nearby fort. The Martins’ crops and cabin are burned down, so they go to live and work on the large farm of a gruff but caring widow, Sarah McKlennar (Edna May Oliver). All people of the Mohawk Valley must sacrifice, fight and unite to win the freedom of the new land.
This film was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by John Ford. Like most of Ford’s films, it was loosely based on historical events. The screenplay, written by Sonya Levien and Lamar Trotti, was adapted from the 1936 novel of the same name by Walter D. Edmonds. Ford’s first Technicolor production, this film maximized the visual impact of the color palette by filming on location in Utah. The finished film was a big hit, earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Edna May Oliver.
The most common changes to facts in “Drums along the Mohawk” involve rearranging the geography and timeline of events. Perhaps the most obvious deviation from the story is the lack of British troops among the colonists’ attackers. Indians in full war paint and American Tories are the main enemies of the Continental Army, while the British, the most predictable foe, are conspicuously absent. It’s because of the timing of the production of this film. When it was made in 1939, England had just joined the war against Nazi Germany. Although the United States did not join World War II for two years, Americans sympathized with the British people’s struggle for survival against German forces. According to HistoryOnFilm.com, Ford “had little desire to show the British as villains when they were fighting for their lives against the Nazis”.
Most war movies, regardless of the military conflict they depict, focus on the big picture of combat. They come close to generals and strategists on either or both sides, while the average soldier is just a faceless player in the grand scheme of long-range action sequences. It’s a whole different story in “Drums Along the Mohawk.” It focuses on one man’s experience in a war. Although it is the Revolutionary War, General George Washington is never seen and only mentioned in passing. The King of England is not the enemy; even Caldwell (John Carradine), the local Tory leader who hides behind the attackers with his menacing eye patch, is beyond Gil’s reach. The only enemy Gil Martin knows is the Tory or the Indian who comes to him at the moment.
One of the most pivotal battles taking place during this film is the Battle of Oriskany, a significant conflict during the Saratoga Campaign on August 6, 1777, involving only North American troops. Instead of showing Gil Martin and his comrades fighting in this bloody melee, the film focuses on his wife, eagerly awaiting her safe return. When he finally returns home in the rain, seriously injured, he tells her with emotion the terrible details of the fight. His first-hand account brings the battle to life, as if every audience member awaits the safe return of a soldier fighting in that battle:
“I heard a crackling, like a stick breaking. Suddenly the guy next to me stopped talking and fell to the side. Then I heard a whistle; shots rang out everywhere. Someone shouted that we had been ambushed. … Someone told me to lie down, and then I saw them, all smeared with paint, yellow and red, all the colors. Behind them, conservatives in green tunics. I got off a log and took aim at a guy. He leapt into the air and fell face down. After that, we just kept shooting as fast as we could charge, for I don’t know how long. … Adam Hartman came beside me; his rifle was broken. He had a spear. He couldn’t stop smiling. I remember thinking, “He’s having a good time. He likes that. Very quickly, he pointed. I saw an Indian coming towards us, naked. I tried to load, but it was too late. Adam stood up and cocked his spear. The Indian got off. I’ve never seen a guy look so funny, so surprised. He just stood there with his mouth open, staring at us, not saying a word. I had to shoot him. There was nothing else to do. I had to!”
Since the war in this film is fought on such a local level, the settlers find out about their side’s victory in a very factual announcement of their military reinforcements. However, it does provide an opportunity for a moment of early patriotism. One of the settlers (Russell Simpson) sees the original Betsy Ross flag being held by one of the soldiers and says, “So that’s our new flag. The thing we fought for. Thirteen stripes for the colonies and thirteen stars in a circle for the Union. Looking serenely, Lana said to Gil, “That’s a nice flag, isn’t it?” Then one of the local soldiers (Ward Bond) loudly grabs the flag and says, “Hey, soldier, let me take this flag for a minute.” We fought a bit here ourselves! He climbs the central tower of the fort and raises the flag. The camera focuses on individual faces filled with admiration as the stumps of “Let Freedom Ring” swell in the background.
According to IMDb’s list of Goofs, it’s highly unlikely that the settlers didn’t see the American flag at the time, since it had been the official flag of the fledgling country for four years. However, that misses the point of this conclusion. Old Glory has always been more than just a national flag for patriots; it is a symbol of freedom. Even though the settlers of the Mohawk Valley had lost property, loved ones and lives during the Revolutionary War, they realized it was worth it when they saw the flag. This flag represented freedom, equality and the dreams of the greatest nation in the world.
After looking at the flag, Gil says to Lana, “Well, I think we better get back to work. There’s going to be a lot of stuff to do from now on. She nods and smiles, and we know the job of rebuilding their farm isn’t too big of a task for them. They will build a home and a life for themselves and their children in a new and wonderful nation. May every American living today remember the Founding Fathers’ dream for the United States whenever they look at the Stars and Stripes. Long may it undulate!