A magnificent film and among the handful that truly can be considered timeless, Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) finds director John Ford and stars Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert at the top of their form in an extraordinarily honest picture about the struggles of late-18th century pioneers in Upstate New York. Walter D. Edmonds' novel has been brought to life with exceptional Technicolor lensing and art direction that rings true to the period, even by stricter 2005 standards. There are surprisingly few films about this period of American history, and Drums Along the Mohawk is easily one of the best and still holds up as exciting entertainment even today.
Gil Martin (Fonda) and wife Lana (Colbert) are married in Albany but settle in Deerfield, near the fort at German Flats. Lana suffers a breakdown upon arriving at the one-room cabin Gil has built for them; the reality of the harsh life ahead overwhelms her, and she's frightened by the appearance of Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree, who modeled for the "Indian-head nickel"), a huge Native American that has undergone a religious conversion to Christianity, albeit a crude interpretation.
Gil and Lana, still very much in love, work hard to develop their land and are welcomed by their new neighbors, but 30 minutes into the film they lose everything when Tory loyalist Caldwell (John Carradine, wearing an eye patch), leading a pack of Mohawk Indians, burn the Martin's home and all their crops. With nowhere else to turn, the Martins move in with feisty widow Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver) as hired help. But the Revolutionary War, having reached their backwoods community, presses Gil and the other men into service as Continental soldiers, and the future of their small community is very much in doubt.
What's most impressive watching Drums Along the Mohawk today is how Ford pulls no punches in depicting the horror of war. Released at the outbreak of the Second World War (the picture was released in November 1939), such honest films were essentially forbidden for the duration in the interest of "public morale." Here, the Indian attacks (led by a white man) are brutal and frightening. A captured scout is burned alive; women and children are targeted by flaming arrows. And though a battle between the community's militia and British forces takes place off-camera, the aftereffects on the men are shown in unflinching realism.
Indeed, as famous as Henry Fonda's "I'll Be There" speech at the end of The Grapes of Wrath is, in Drums Along the Mohawk the actor is even better delivering a rambling, somewhat delirious shell-shocked account of the battle and the friends he watched die. As Colbert's scurries about him, frantically tending to his wounds, Fonda's Gil sits still looking into space reliving the horror in his mind's eye. It's an extraordinary piece of acting. The second of Fonda's "three-peat" performances in Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums, and The Grapes of Wrath, all shot within one year, Gil is a decent, hard-working man sensitive to his wife's needs, and strong when the going gets tough. It's one of his defining roles.
The rest of the cast is equally fine. Claudette Colbert, hypnotically watchable and a delight in practically everything, is entirely acceptable as a pioneer woman toughened up in what surely is a trial by fire. Edna May Oliver doesn't overplay her part of the Martin's benefactor, a role that might easily have been overdone. Ward Bond is perfectly cast in what was an early role for him in Ford's stock company, as a boisterous, hard-drinking pioneer whose flirting with Oliver's old widow becomes a sweet running gag.
Though the terrain doesn't much look like Upstate New York - the picture was shot on location in the mountains of Utah - Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan's lensing is among the finest ever done in 3-strip Technicolor. (Their work was nominated but lost to, naturally, Gone with the Wind. Theirs was the best of the six nominees, however.) Unlike most Technicolor films of the 1930s and '40s, Glennon and Rennahan achieve amazing results in low-light situations, such as the Martin's arrival at the cabin during a thunderstorm. Once inside, the flash of the lighting is distorted by the rainwater as the light comes through the windows, while inside the only other source of light is a fire Gil builds. A similar image of Colbert looking through a window as it rains outside is transcendently beautiful.
Two surprises in the opening titles: This is "Darryl F. Zanuck's production of Drums Along the Mohawk," rather than, say, "John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk." Also of note is the film's co-producer, former silent comedian Raymond Griffith.
Video & Audio
Drums Along the Mohawk is presented in its original full-frame format. Filmed in three-color Technicolor (see below), the image is variable, with quite a few misaligned shots but also some stunningly gorgeous ones that look like that could have been shot yesterday. It's the best-looking version of the film I've ever seen, and a big improvement over earlier transfers. Once again Fox offers up a pseudo-stereo audio track alongside the original mono one. The time and money put into these faux multi-audio mixes from mono elements could better be spent on other restoration/film transfer projects, but it's there if you want it. French and Spanish audio tracks are also available, along with subtitles in English and Spanish.
There are two supplements. The first is a Restoration Comparison between a 1985 transfer and its new 2004 IP from an (old) CRI off the original negative, as well the digital clean-up to remove dirt tears, etc. The results are generally impressive, although curiously the Fox logo seen at the head is from the 1960s or '70s from the look of it, and not the original. Less so is a Theatrical Trailer, which is a) in black and white, and b) is missing text and possibly narration as well. It comes nowhere near representing the advertising audiences would've seen in theaters in 1939, and Fox (and for that matter, other labels) does its DVD buyers a disservice not pointing out that such trailers are essentially incomplete.
Totally engrossing, Drums Along the Mohawk is a must-see.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.