Oddly enough, Hollywood has produced remarkably few films about the American Revolutionary War, and only a few of them are good - a situation mirrored, on the other side of the Atlantic, by that of French movies about the French Revolution. From a military historian point of view, Drums... is certainly not among the best. It shows a prominent consensual bias - whereas the English and Loyalists are almost non-existent, the Patriots are too good to be true - which certainly disregards the complexity of the situation. However, this bias makes ample room for the depiction of the settlers' life, and thus for the evocation of the effect of war upon people. Therein lies the brillance of this film.
John Ford is a master at painting communities of ordinary people. The rituals of their social life (births, weddings, mournings, dances, solidarity, work etc.), the interacting worlds of men and women at the time. He's done that many times, he is at is best in Drums... because he is never dull. Where else but in a Ford movie would you hear a priest advertise, right in the Church, for the local milliner? Where would you get in the same film one man most seriously advise another to beat his spouse good, and possibly one of the strongest independent female characters (the widow McKlennar) ever filmed at the time? Where else would you witness the beginning of a romance between a 56 y.o. Edna May Oliver and a 36 y.o. Ward Bond?
La fleur au fusil
Because the tough lives and sincere hopes of the settlers - including of course newlyweds Gilbert and Lana Martin (Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert) - are so well rendered, the irruption of the violence and devastation brought by war can reach its maximum emotional impact on the viewer, with only minimal graphic precision. Scenes such as Gilbert's dismal account of his first battle, the (un-filmed) death of a man because of a leg wound and an inexperienced surgeon, the visual counterpoints of the same landscape at peace and at war, the single shot of a violence-drunk fighter about to throw a baby through the room, a long chase in the dusk... bear witness that great cinema, just like our dreams, doesn't need surround sounds of bullets flying, close-ups of silicon organ pieces and cgi-enhanced torrents of blood to be meaningful.
Released in 1939, Drums Along the Mohawk was a box-office success, though critically eclipsed by the director's two masterpieces of the same vintage (Stagecoach and Young Mr Lincoln). To consider this film as a western and dismiss it as a war movie is actually tempting, as the original poster suggests. And surely, the theme of the Frontier is omnipresent in Drums... Nevertheless, not only is this in my opinion one of the best contributions Ford has ever made to the war film genre, but I'll also argue that the peculiar combination of the archetypes of the militia and that of the Frontier, as developed in this film, remain central to an American conception of war.
For in Drums..., war proceeds somehow 'naturally' from the community being threatened in its development. It is not a matter of political calculations. Since the destiny of the community seems to be its own expansion (both demographic and geographic), the Enemy appears mostly as those (or that) who threaten this un-questioned order of things. Thus, the Enemy doesn't need to exist outside the realm of its function as an obstacle to be overcome - a constant in U.S. war movies, which is why they so often look like westerns (no derogatory intention here). Only in the end will the settlers discover for the first time the flag they have been fighting for: until then, for all its horror, war was just the natural thing to do.
PS : on DVD, the best color transfer is to be found in the Region 1 "Ford at Fox" box set.
Drums Along The Mohawk at imdb.
Ford at Fox DVD edition (Fox) & others.