Sunday, October 17, 2010

Revolutionary silence

There's a surprising dearth of movies, let alone good ones, about the nation's founding

As part of my ongoing research on the film career of Daniel Day-Lewis, I recently watched the 1939 John Ford movie Drums Along the Mohawk, a great popular success at a moment in American history when American history itself was in vogue. (Gone with the Wind and Young Mr. Lincoln were released the same year.) You may wonder why such a movie would be relevant to Day-Lewis, and I must say I don't have all that compelling an answer, but I'll begin to render one by observing Drums is really one of very few movies -- The Howards of Virginia, released in 1940, comes to mind, along with the musical 1776 (1972), Revolution (1985), and The Patriot  (2000) -- that feature the American Revolution as a historical setting. This is not exactly an honor roll; 1776 has its partisans, and Revolution seems to have received critical reappraisal recently, but none of these movies have exactly found a deep and lasting place in the American imagination. The recent HBO miniseries John Adams might attain such durability, but as a multi-part television show, it is arguably a different species.

Drums Along the Mohawk, based on the successful -- and unlike this movie, scrupulously documented -- novel by Walter Edmonds, stars a young Henry Fonda and a not-so young Claudette Colbert as newlyweds trying to navigate the rigors of life on the frontier of upstate New York, which would be hard enough without a war going on. A British-backed Indian raid, orchestrated by an ominous, eye-patch donning Brit played by John Carradine, drives them from their home. The couple takes refuge with a flinty widow played by Edna May Oliver, who walks away with the movie and indeed garnered an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. (Oliver was a direct descendant of John Quincy Adams, and there's something marvelous about watching a nineteenth century woman playing eighteenth century character in a twentieth century movie that you're watching in the twenty-first.) Fonda joins a militia and gets wounded in the American victory at the Battle of Oriskany,  which he incorrectly hopes will settle matters for good in their corner of the world. Instead, the community is literally besieged in a final attack on the fort it has built to protect itself, saved only at the last minute in a fictional rescue made possible by a daring run by Fonda, who runs Iroquois pickets in a successful bid to procure reinforcements.

As a cinematic experience, Drums is a mixed bag. The narrative pace goes slack in long sequences like the birth of the couple's child (which might have better if it wasn't so sentimentalized). But Arthur Shields is quite funny as a minister, and Ward Bond -- has any actor been in so many great movies? -- has some terrific mock-sexual banter with the elderly Oliver. Director John Ford made lemonade out of lemons when bad weather reputedly kept him from staging the battle of Oriskany, instead improvising a powerful scene of wounded combatants returning to town. And the final sequence is undeniably dramatic. All told, this is a movie that deserves to be better remembered than it has been.

All that said, I still think the best movie about the Revolution is Last of the Mohicans, which is something of an inaccurate statement, because on any obvious level it's about the French and Indian War (which has gotten even less attention than the Revolution). But it's a movie full of Revolutionary foreshadowing, a big part of the reason why it works -- and part of James Fenimore Cooper's intention from the start. This is something I'll try to explain in a later post.