Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Review – Drums Along the Mohawk

July 9, 2008

Drums Along the Mohawk – U.S., 1939

Two scenes in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk perfectly reflect the pioneering spirit of early America. In the first, Gilbert Martin (Henry Fonda), recently married and living in a small cabin in an undeveloped part of upstate New York, stops working and stares off into the distance. His wife, Lana, asks him what he is thinking of. Gilbert answers that he is imagining what his land will look like in the future. What he imagines is a land that his hard work has helped to develop; he sees a bigger house, better crops, all the result of his diligence. His wife Lana smiles, clearly sharing his dreams. Later, after tragedy has struck repeatedly, robbing them of their house, their possessions, and even their unborn child, Gilbert stands in an open field scanning the land around him. His eyes are filled with an incredible amount of hope and pride, illuminating his deep-held belief that his dreams are still possible and that the land around him still offers him the chance for prosperity and a good life.

It is hard to capture the feelings of early settlers in the United States. Gone are the memories of an undeveloped land that beckoned those yearning for property and land. Gone is the belief that those early settlers in America were destined – perhaps by a divine plan – for greatness, and gone are the days when people would proudly venture into areas rife with the daily potential for danger and loss. And yet this is the mindset of the characters in Drums Along the Mohawk, and understanding that is essential to understanding the resilience they demonstrate throughout the film.

Drums Along the Mohawk begins in 1776 in Albany, New York. There, Gilbert and Lana exchange their wedding vows, each showing the cheerful innocence of a couple much in love and believing the fairy tale of happily-ever-after. After the wedding, they immediately board a wagon and set off for their new home, a place that it’s likely Lana has never set eyes on, let alone been in. These are, after all, very different times. Their journey could not start off worse. Plagued by insects, drenched by storms, and startled by a man wearing an eye patch asking about their political affiliation, it is anything but the sunny romantic journey they were probably hoping for. It gets worse before it gets better. Once they do arrive, Lana is saddened by her new home, as she is accustomed to the very best. To her credit, she tries to put on a happy face, but it doesn’t last. However, as time goes by, Lana warms up to her surroundings and makes the transition from rich city girl to farmer, and she appears happy. This happiness will be tested by the American Revolution and the persistent threat of Indian attacks.

Drums Along the Mohawk suffers slightly due to two elements in the story. The most glaring problem involves the film’s portrayal of Native Americans, in particular Blue Back, the film’s “friendly Indian.” With the exception of Blue Back, the Native Americans in the film run around stereotypically setting alight fields and houses, all the while letting off shouts and howls to scare off residents, who they will later pursue with the intent to kill. There is no exploration of the reasons they are doing this or their motivation for siding with the British. Blue Back is another matter and in a way, his depiction is more disturbing, for he appears to be used as comic fodder. That is, after he is used to scare the devil out of Lana. His appearance, inside the house and covered with a mixture of shadows and light better suited for a horror film, and subsequent illogical approach of her – somewhat similar to Dracula but without the cape - is enough to send poor Lana, unaccustomed to seeing Native Americans, into hysterics. Why Blue Back didn’t just say, “Excuse me, ma’am. Is Gilbert here?” I’ll never know. In addition, Blue Back speaks in severely broken English, but is a devout Christian who can apparently understand sermons perfectly well. He is also seemingly tribeless and without a family. The reason for this is never explained, and Blue Back remains an extremely undeveloped character throughout the movie.

My second problem with Drums Along the Mohawk has to do with a scene which seems to encourage the use of violence on women. In the scene, Blue Back returns to the cabin and explains that a man must be able to control his wife. To help facilitate this, he brings Gilbert a stick that he claims is used when women get out of hand. Gilbert accepts the gift quietly, looks at it as if pondering what to do with it, and then hangs it over the fire place. Then Gilbert and Lana smile, as if the whole situation is funny. It isn’t. Making the scene even more uncomfortable is the fact that it takes place after Gilbert has slapped Lana to get her to calm down and then rationalized his action by saying that it was the only way to calm her down. The scene simply doesn’t work.

However, it should be said that most of the rest of the film does. First, the film is a compelling love story. Gilbert and Lana are interesting characters, and we root for their love to survive the turbulence of the times in which they live. In addition, viewers get a clear view of what life was like in 1776 and during the American Revolution. Particularly well done is a scene in which Gilbert and his militia return from battle scarred and emotionally shaken. Henry Fonda’s recollection of his experience and the emotional toll it has taken on him are unforgettable. In addition, the film honestly depicts the sacrifice and determination of a group of people who followed their dreams and helped shape the America that exists today. In fact, many of the characters in the film really existed, and the film’s climax is in fact based on a real event. In the end, as the Stars and Stripes are raised for possibly the first time in that area, Gilbert and Lana take a moment to admire it and reflect upon its meaning – but only a moment, for their work for themselves, their child, and America itself is not yet done. (on DVD)

3 stars

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