Maybe film historians are just being lazy when they lump Drums Along the Mohawk with John Ford’s other 1939 classics, Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln. It’s also conveniently located on Ford’s résumé right before his enduring 1940 masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. But make no mistake, Drums Along the Mohawk is a lesser effort from Ford, told in a series of standalone scenes of frontier life. Gilbert (Henry Fonda) and his wife Lana (Claudette Colbert) adjust to life in an isolated cabin in the Mohawk Valley, where he grows from timid boy into rugged American individualist and she discovers the pride and joy of harvesting crops and procreating. Ford clearly enjoys his All-American Myth Building, as farmers and frontiersmen toughen up into a firm militia to do battle against savage Indians and faceless Redcoats. His Yankees show a can-do resilience against all odds and epitomize the pluck and strong work ethic of Americana combined with a love of God and country that borders on obscene zealotry. As always, Ford creates some stirring pictures. Set against the backdrop of mountain sunsets, one gets the impression Ford never met a horizon line he didn’t like. But the landscapes aren’t varied enough to make up for the underwritten characterizations and ho-hum action scenes. (Pretty backdrops can only go so far, and the most “exciting” sequence is a painfully long foot chase through the forest, which modern viewers are sure to compare to Peter Jackson’s similarly endless “let’s spring to save the Hobbits” montage in The Lord of the Rings) Even though Fonda is uncharacteristically stiff here, it’s easy to see why he became Ford’s leading man of choice: stoic, quiet, handsome, and true blue, he suggests all things one-dimensional and wholesome. But petulant Colbert is woefully miscast, looking entirely out-of-place and befuddled by the prairies. She and Fonda have zero appeal together, which makes sense in the early scenes of newlywed panic but carries on throughout the entire picture, even after they’ve built up their family and farm. Ford regulars Ward Bond and an eye-patched John Carradine pop up as welcome familiar faces, but Oscar-nominee Edna May Oliver’s turn as a straight-talking, crusty old widow is a performance of never-ending crass bluster. When she refuses to move from her bed as the stereotypical grunting Injuns are burning her house down, you’re placed in the disconcerting position of wishing homicide upon a supposedly noble frontierswoman, if only to make her shut her yap.
Not bad, but the Technicolor looks a little faded in some spots. Clearly, the restorers didn't go above and beyond the call of duty to save this one, which is marred by occasional scratches. The sound quality is slightly tinny, but acceptable.
It would have been interesting to find out whose bright idea it was to cast Paris-born comedienne Claudette Colbert as a frontier wife, but no commentary or making-of documentary accompanies the film. Instead, there's a goofy black-and-white trailer with scenes from the movie projected onto the pages of a storybook.
Those seeking another 1939 John Ford revisionist history lesson should seek out Young Mr. Lincoln.