It is a strange truism about films concerning American History. While some of those films dealing with the Civil War are great ("The General", "Gone With The Wind") or highly respectable ("The Raid", "Gettysburg", "Glory"), this is less true about films about the American Revolution. It's a sad or mediocre commentary. D.W.Griffith's first great feature length film was the controversial - pro K.K.K film: "The Birth OF A Nation". No matter how you hate the film's racism, it's innovation make it a film landmark. But his attempt at a Revolution film, America, was a flop. Just see the titles: "America", "The Howards Of Virginia", "The Devil's Desciple" (slightly better due to its star cast, especially Olivier as "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne), "John Paul Jones", "Lafayette", "Revolution". There are two exceptions. The musical "1776" was a good film, and (despite some historical errors) told the story of the creation of the Declaration of Independence pretty well. This film is the other. It is the only film by John Ford set in the American Revolution (he was more at home in the Indian Wars of the 1870s). It is in glorious color for a 1939 film. It has a dandy cast from Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert as the young married couple, to Edna Mae Oliver, Ward Bond, Arthur Shields, and John Carridine (except that his motivation as a Tory is never developed - possibly his scenes were cut in the editing).
Perhaps it was the source. Walter D. Edmonds is a forgotten writer today, but when I was growing up in the 1960s his novels, "Drums Along The Mohawk" and "Chad Hanna", were still published and read. Interestingly Henry Fonda was also in the film version of that latter novel. Edwards was a regional historical writer (which may explain his contemporary oblivion). All his novels are set in upstate New York, "Chad Hanna" being set in the 1830s. "Drums Along The Mohawk deals with the warfare between settlers in Western New York and the Six Nations of the Iroquois Indians, the latter allied with Tories. It is a grueling warfare - culminating in the battle of Oriskany, where American troops literally slugged it out in forest fighting with the Indians. Commanded by General Nicholas Herkimer (Ralph Imhof in the film)the Americans barely won the battle. Herkimer died of his wounds a few days later (movingly captured in the movie). He is honored today by a county upstate named for him. These events occurred in 1777, and the film seems to end in 1779. It ends with the settlers of the Mohawk River Valley triumphing over the Tories and Indians. What is not shown is what really crushed the Indians - Washington sent General John Sullivan into the area, and in a foreshadowing of the scorched earth policies of General William Tecumseh Sherman, Sullivan burned the Iroquois villages to the ground. It is not a pretty story now, but in that period Sullivan was considered a national hero. Ford does not even touch on that aspect. Probably just as well. But what he does show is first rate Ford, and we are all grateful for that.
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