As the Fourth of July approaches, thoughts turn to heat, humidity, burgers, fireworks, and a movie. I’d like to recommend Drums Along the Mohawk, directed by John Ford, and starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. I am not going to give you a plot summary because I want you to enjoy the movie. I am going to tell you why I think this movie has integrity, speaks truth, and is worth watching.
“Truth” might be a strange word to use of a film based on a novel. One work of fiction can get you an Oscar nomination; another can get you sent to bed with no supper. Walter Edmonds’ historical novel is set in the Mohawk Valley during the Revolutionary War. It follows the lives of fictional newlyweds, Gil and Lana Martin, as they interact with real people and real events. The real events are the siege of Fort Stanwix, the Battle of Oriskany, and the Attack on German Flats. The people are General Herkimer, Adam Helmer, and William Caldwell. In John Ford’s movie, the allusions to real people and events are a distraction, giving fuel to the fact checkers and inflating the self-advertised moral superiority of pedants. Ford takes some core strands from Edmond’s story and adds some of his own. It is not historically accurate. Not all that happens in the movie occurred in the Mohawk Valley. However, Ford’s distillation of the frontier war and how that affects his characters hits the correct psychological register: everything you own can go up in smoke and, whatever the eighteenth-century equivalent of the Geneva Conventions might be, the Iroquois have their own rules. So, while the ‘facts’ are not real, the love, the loss, the fear, and the heroism are. And they are something to celebrate on Independence Day.
The integrity of the movie is found primarily in its treatment of atrocity. In contrast with another Revolutionary War movie, no one gets burned alive in a church, and no wounded men get shot on any porches. Atrocity is correctly located on the frontier with the usual participants: Native Americans and the Militia.
I am not saying that there have never been people deliberately burned alive in churches. Around 1500, a party of Murrays took refuge in the Kirk of Monzievaird. One of them fired and arrow from the safety of the church and hit one of his Drummond and Campbell pursuers. In retaliation, they burned the church down on top of the Murrays. Only one man is said to have escaped. However, even in the lawless Highlands of that time, such a thing was not to be tolerated. The Drummond and Campbell chieftains involved were hanged at Stirling. That said, the point of the fictional church burning scene in The Patriot was not to portray the Revolutionary War as a late medieval feud. It is a reference to the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944 by a unit of the Waffen-SS. It is a theatrical device, a manipulation of the audience, to establish the badness of the baddies and to ensure great satisfaction at comeuppance time. Its lack of integrity shows in that it has put an elephant in the Revolutionary War history room. Fortunately, it is manmade and filled with hot air. Unfortunately, it seems that every coach historian his to prick it with his own pin before it will go away.
Again, one of the lasting complaints of the Americans was the treatment of captured Continental Army soldiers. The British did not consider them to be prisoners of war. How could they? To do so would be to admit the legitimacy of their government and nation-state: the issue over which the war was being fought. That said, for ethnic, linguistic, and religious reasons as much as political ones, they still fared better than the wounded Gaels who were, like their Rebellion, quashed by Redcoats on Culloden Moor in 1746. Given that we are talking about a revolution, a rebellion, the thing which audiences should be taking away is that the American War of Independence lacked so many of the atrocities which mark similar political upheavals: except on the frontier.
On the frontier, it was different. At Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Seneca warriors faced off against the local militia. Some of the militiamen tried to surrender, others ran. As far as the Iroquois were concerned that was not how things were done. If you start a fight, you finish a fight. And they did. Interestingly, perhaps strangely, the Seneca only chased down those who had been in the battle. They deliberately passed by other, easier, targets. Nevertheless, the Patriot propaganda machine got cranked up, and tales of savage depredations came off the press. Unfortunately, the Seneca leaders got hold of the stories. They lived up to the accusations made against them when the later raided Cherry Valley.
Still, on the frontier, there was the Moravian Mission massacre at Gnadenhutten in what is now Ohio. The missionaries at Gnadenhutten were suspected by the British of being actively sympathetic the Patriot cause and were taken to Fort Detroit, leaving about one hundred Christian Delaware men, women, and children in the village. In their absence, 160 Pennsylvania Militiamen arrived at the village. Believing the Delaware to be complicit in attacks on their settlements, the Pennsylvanians held a council and condemned the villagers to death. The Moravian converts denied the charge and asked for time to prepare, which they were given. After a night spent in prayer and singing, the Delaware were brought to designated huts and murdered. Then the village was looted. Only two small boys survived, though badly wounded, to tell what had happened.
So, did such things as burning people alive and killing the wounded occur in the War of Independence? In the heart of the colonies? No. But on the frontier things like that, of similar moral magnitude, were done by both sides. Without graphic portrayal, Ford leaves us in no doubt of what will happen if the Iroquois breach the walls.
Another point at which the integrity of this movie shines is its treatment of the local militia. Called together they head out on a mission and, on the way, are ambushed. We learn that they fight off their attackers but at an almost Pyrrhic cost. Ford could so easily play up the militia myth, but he doesn’t. Most of the time, militia units fared poorly. The Revolutionary War was won by the Prussian trained Continental Army and French Regulars. The folks in the Mohawk Valley had to hang on until General Washington secured the victory.
Lastly, the integrity of this movie is seen in its treatment of family. A movie set in this place and time could easily have been an adventure of buckskin-clad bachelors in the backwoods. Ford gives us a settlement, a community, a congregation, made up of families. And families mean women. The female characters anchor this movie. Even in the leading lady we do not to have a budding Daughter of the Revolution, but a young mother of a young nation.
Ford takes us to the Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution. He doesn’t give us a documentary. He tells us a tale with his usual larger than life characterizations. There is an integrity to the people’s situation and a truth to their experience. It might not be what happened on that frontier, but it is what it felt like to be there. We can identify with that. And the Fourth of July is a good time to do it.