My Ramblings- Fair Warning- this gets lengthy because I have thoughts.
A beautiful needlepoint image of a cabin, the steady and intimidating drum beat. Released in 1939 John Ford’s “eastern-western” is quick to play on both stereotypes and the prevailing thoughts of the time. Before the story even begins, we already have an idea of what’s to come, that the Natives found here and the non-Natives moving in will eventually come to face to face and it won’t be a happy meeting. Throughout the story we see things play out that reinforce the sentiments of not just the Revolutionary War era, but also the 1930’s in America. For this review I’m going to focus on three topics: imagery and music, the importance of land ownership, and movie tropes that highlight stereotypes.
Imagery and Music: Looking at the introduction to the movie, to the needlepoint image of a cabin in the woods that fills the screen, it’s something you might find hanging on the wall of a cabin out west, nestled in the woods, calling back to a simpler time, a time when you could make a life for yourself with your own two hands and then relish the solitude out in the wilderness. The music rises as the names play across the image, countering the idyllic scene is drum beats, instantly familiar to anyone who has attended a college football game. This is the war chant, meant to drum up a crowd, to play on the competition that is about to take place. Here, for this movie, it indicates that all won’t be as simple as it may seem, and danger is right out around the corner. I think it’s worth saying again, we have yet to see a single character enter the story, and yet, the two sides have been pretty clearly highlighted. Throughout the movie the soundtrack is used to play on the audience emotions. When we see the valley and its beauty, the music is sweeping and is meant to inspire feelings of hope for Gil and Lana. Whenever the Indians are on the scene, the music becomes ominous and makes you worry for the safety of Gil and Lana and the life they have built. The music here continues to support the narrative of good v. evil.
Something that bothered me in the movie, but which might not cross the radar of other viewers, was how the Mohawk Valley was portrayed. To be fair, the landscapes were beautiful, the forest and the fields clearly showed what life must have been like on the frontier as Gil and Lana built their home together. The problem is that it’s not even close to what the Mohawk Valley looks like. As a native Syracusan, I have spent a lot of time down the road in the Mohawk Valley, even visiting Fort Stanwix, which is the Fort in Deerfield that is loosely portrayed in the movie. I was so distracted by how incorrect it all looked that I had to stop the movie and go look up where the movie was actually filmed, in this case in parts of Utah. By the 1930’s the Mohawk Valley was being built up, so it makes sense that the movie was filmed elsewhere, but the difference in landscape between upstate New York and Utah is pretty stark and while it serves the narrative of the wild and dangerous frontier, it did pull me out of the story.
The Importance of Land Ownership: At the outset of our story, we see Gil and Lana getting married in Albany. The costuming and setting make it clear that Lana comes from a family of means, and that she may be ill suited for the life she is about to embark on with Gil in the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York. Her family worries about her, but also is clear that this day was always going to come, because this is how people make a life for themselves. This speaks early on to the idea that hard work and building yourself a home and livelihood is an ideal that Gil, and others hold for themselves. In a time when there weren’t a lot of jobs yet that you can just go out and get, doing for yourself and being self sufficient was a sign of success. While Albany was a relatively well to do city, there still weren’t a plethora of opportunities, so the chance to move west and make a name for yourself was a big one. That Gil had his own cabin and the land to work speaks of his ability to provide for himself and Lana. Owning their own land was what deemed them successful at this time period. When their farm is subsequently burned down by the Tories and Indians, we see how deep that cut is for Gil’s pride. They not only lost their means of providing for themselves, but Gil lost the thing that defined him as being a successful provider for his family, and therefore impacted how he views himself as a man.
It’s at this point that we are introduced to who I believe is the best character in the movie, Mrs. McKlennar. She is a widower who needs help on her farm and is willing to hire Gil and Lana and provide them with a place to live. She is tough as nails and speaks her mind and her character is often both the comic relief in a scene and the person who is getting everyone else to move forward and do what they need to do. Still, Gil, in particular is reluctant to work someone else’s land, and there is a discussion that lends itself to the idea that working for someone else might be shameful. This again points to the ideal of land ownership being the indicator of success. Gil and Lana still own the land, but at this juncture it is useless, so have they failed? Eventually, after Mrs. McKlennar dies dramatically while defending the Fort, she leaves her farm to Gil and Lana. Here we see Gil and Lana again successful as they have a working farm and home and we assume they will continue to flourish here after the movie ends.
Tropes and Stereotypes: This movie is riddled with tropes and stereotypes that were common for he time and certainly prevail in movie westerns even into the present. Looking at how the Indians in the movie first we see two different tropes play out. We have the friendly Indian in Blue Duck who though he makes a late night terrifying entrance into Gil and Lana’s home, causing Lana to lose her absolute mind with terror, he quickly becomes the stereotypical helpful Indian. Speaking in clipped sentences, smiling a lot, warning his new non-Native friends of impending danger from the bad Indians and getting drunk with the settlers when Lana is giving birth. He is portrayed as unintelligent, but unceasingly loyal to the settlers, turning his back on his brethren for the sake of the new settlement. It highlights the idea that not all Indians were bad, but they are also still other then. On the flip side of the coin is the bad Indians, aligned here with the Tories, these Indians are portrayed as savages, who care not at all for lost lives, and who will destroy anything that gets in their way. They also are rarely fully clothed, while Blue Duck is in several layers of buckskin and blankets, a visual indicator of how they were somehow less human then Blue Duck and the settlers. The bad Indians were also portrayed as drunk and stupid, although where it was something to make Blue Duck seem friendly and complacent, with the bad Indians it served to highlight how despite their savagery, they were still essentially too stupid to win a fight. We see this most clearly when they raid Mrs. McKlennar’s farm. The intruders find McKlennar in her bed, and while they initially try to light it on fire with her still in it, she manages to brow beat them into carrying her entire bed, with her on it, down the stairs to safety. At the first sign of resistance, the Indians are convinced to do as they are told. While I found the whole interaction entertaining, mostly because I enjoyed Edna Mae Oliver’s portrayal of the independent female homesteader, it was hard to not cringe at how easily the Indians were brow beaten into submission.
It’s worth noting here that the bad Indians have sided with Caldwell, who is the Tory villain (we know immediately that he is the bad guy because he is wearing an impressive eye-patch and asks about Gil and Lana’s political affiliations). While this is an aside from the trope/stereotype conversation, I think that it is important to note that in 1776, the so-called bad guys were also the British, but they are scarcely mentioned in this movie. Why? Because in 1939 when the movie came out were on the brink of War with Germany and Britain was an ally. Ford, and other movie makers of the time were hesitant to portray our closest ally as the villain, and so they were removed almost entirely from the narrative.
Going back to the tropes found in the movie, perhaps the most egregious one, is Gil’s portrayal as the western hero. Certainly, the character has the traits of the classic western hero, he is an adventurer, willing to work hard to get what he wants and willing to take up arms to defend his family and community in the face of danger. However, the lengths that the movie goes to prove Gil worthy is at points laughable. Throughout the film we see or hear about how Gil has cleared the land and has the most fertile soil in the valley, how he has built his home and how he has survived multiple battles, including the incredibly devastating Battle of Oriskany.
The most glaring example of his exceptionalism comes at the climax of the movie when the settlers are holed up at the Fort and the Tories and Indians are burning the homestead and attacking the fort. The situation is so dire that even the women have donned uniforms and taken up arms to defend their homes. The settlers know they need reinforcements, and so someone must go to Fort Dayton for help. The first man to attempt it is quickly caught and burned alive within view of the Fort. Gil’s undeserved confidence here is astounding. He heads out to Fort Dayton and we get a glimpse of one of the most unrealistic chase scene I’ve ever seen. Gil is apparently the fastest man alive as he runs all the way to Fort Dayton without a rest to hydrate or hit the bathroom up. He runs all night with three Indians behind him, they begin to struggle and drop out of the chase, but Gil is still feeling strong. The timeline here is all over the place, Gil leaves the fort at dark, but he somehow runs through a sunset and sunrise and the soldiers from Fort Dayton arrive back in Deerfield at dawn. As a reference, the trip from Deerfield to Fort Dayton is 24 miles, which means Gil traveled upwards of 50 miles to Dayton and back in under 24 hours and still seems remarkably rested.
Overall this movie felt typical of its time period. Westerns allowed viewers to step outside themselves to experience a different time and place, when the world was both a little simpler and a little more dangerous. While loosely based on real life events in the Mohawk Valley during the Revolutionary War, the world presented by Ford fits that western narrative that audiences craved.
This page is my home for all my studies. Initially started when I was a graduate student at Syracuse University in Library & Information Science:School Media, it has seen me through that degree plus a CAS in Cultural Heritage Preservation.
Starting in the Fall of 2018 I will use it for my newest endeavor, a certificate in Native American Studies at Montana State University.
On occasion I will also post interesting articles or my thoughts on things related to my job as a Middle School Librarian in an Expeditionary Learning School.