There are relatively few movies about the American Revolution. I think this is due to the fact that the American side lost most of the battles of that war. The battle at Saratoga, the surprise attack at Trenton, and the siege of Yorktown are part of the short list of American victories, and except for the occasion television movie or mini-series, they are rarely touched upon. Consequently, "Drums Along the Mohawk" remains the best of American movie about the revolution even though it was made before World War I and even though the redcoats are not really involved in the fight.
"Drums Along the Mohawk" does not start off as a movie about the American Revolution. Instead it begins as a movie about settling the frontier, which, at that point, was upstate New York. The focus is on a pioneer couple, newlyweds, Gilbert (Henry Fonda) and Magdalena (Claudette Colbert), called Lana. Martin is a farmer who brings his bride to the Mohawk Valley where their home is burned out by Indians allied with the British. The couple are taken in by neighbors after that happens and Martin joins the militia, but the settlers are going to need more men than that to fight the Indians and save the fort from attack.
Based on a novel by Walter D. Edmonds the screenplay for "Drums Along the Mohawk" is by Sonya Levien and Lamar Trotti, although William Faulkner worked on it without receiving credit as well. Edmonds' history novels were all set in upstate New York and "Drums Along the Mohawk" is about the warfare between the settlers and the Six Nations of the Iroquois allied with the British. The Battle of Oriskany in 1777, fought in a forest, was a American victory although their commander General Nicholas Herkimer (Ralph Imhof) died of his wounds in one of the moving scenes of the film.
This was the third film that John Ford made in 1939, following "Stagecoach" with John Wayne and "Young Mr. Lincoln" with Fonda; his next film would be "The Grapes of Wrath." Colbert and Fonda are the stars, but they are upstaged by several members of the supporting case, such as Edna May Oliver as Mrs. McKlennar and Arthur Shields as the Reverend Rosenkrantz. The old lady has such an iron will that she can make Indians take her bed out, with her in it, while they are burning down her home, and the reverend has a memorable scene in which he eases the suffering of a tortured settler. Fonda is young and earnest, while Colbert comes to terms with what it means to be living on the American frontier in troubled times.
More than anything else "Drums Along the Mohwawk" is about people coming to the realization that they are Americans, an interpretation more than amply justified by the film's final scene. These are not the Sons of Liberty living in Boston and dealing with the King's troops and all those burdensome taxes. These are small families living out on the frontier for whom the idea of the United States of America was as odd as a flag with thirteen red and white stripes with a circle of white stars on a blue field. Perhaps it is because it takes place off the main stage that "Drums Along the Mohawk" manages to hit the right notes.