Master craftsman, John Ford’s first venture into Technicolor was Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) – a vibrant and visceral tale of hardship set just prior to the revolutionary war. The film stars Henry Fonda as idealist, Gilbert ‘Gil’ Martin, a frontier man who marries blue blood, Lana (Claudette Colbert) – a lady from a great house, then whisks her to the rustic ‘charm’ of upstate New York.
Their journey across rough terrain begins optimistically enough.
But then, the couple has their first sign of foreboding. Cadwell (John Carradine), a brooding and mysterious one-eyed guest, staying at the same inn, makes cryptic inquiries whether the couple favors the American or Tory political party. Gil’s response provides little solace and the couple make haste to Gil’s cabin in the woods during a violent thunderstorm.
At first, Lana is disillusioned about the home and the land that her new husband has brought her to – far removed from the comfort and safety she has known her whole life. However, after Gil takes Lana to the nearby fort where she meets the curmudgeonly but kind Mrs. Weaver (Jessie Ralph), stickler Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver), Gil’s loyal friend, Adam Harman (Ward Bond) and other congenial neighbors, Lana begins to adapt to, and become appreciative of, her new surroundings. But this new found comfort and genuine joy is not to last.
Another of the fort’s home folk, Joe Boleo (Francis Ford) learns of an impending Indian attack and tries to get word to the Continental Army, only to be captured, bound and burned on a pyre of hay. Unconventional man of the cloth, Reverend Rosenkrantz (Arthur Shields) falls into a catatonic state after he murders to save his own life. Gil’ and Lana’s home is torched by marauding forces, leaving Gil’ – a minuteman – bound by duty to go off war while Lana remains in refuge on a nearby farm where she suffers a miscarriage.
Given that this was his first Technicolor project, Ford’s use of color is extraordinary; his richly saturated greens and deep isolated blues advancing the language of Technicolor photography unlike anything seen before or since. The very tone and mood of the film is generated by Ford’s keen eye for pictorial grandeur; as expressive and integral to the iconography of America as any part of its genuine living history. The film is a sumptuous spectacle with genuine heart. Arguably, more than any of Ford’s earlier works to date, this film expresses his love of the land, his great admiration for the pioneers and unabashedly all-American pride.
20th Century-Fox has reissued Drums Along the Mohawk as a single disc, as part of The Essential John Ford, and also included in Fox’s massive box set, Ford At Fox. The revelation here is that the film has been given a complete Technicolor restoration – ironically not mentioned on the single disc packaging, but advertised on the back jacket of The Essential John Ford.
The resulting color correction is, in a word, astounding. Flesh tones that were far too red or orange in the original transfer are now quite natural. Colors on the whole are eye-popping and gorgeous, delivering a sumptuous palette that is sure to mesmerize. The image is smooth, but with a miraculous amount of fine detail evident throughout, even to the extent that textures of fabric in costuming can be seen clearly for the first time. Age related artifacts are practically absent.
There are a few very rare and brief moments where a hint of misregistration in the negative occurs. But these mere seconds will not distract from what is an absolutely magnificent and near reference quality example of what 3-strip Technicolor was capable of. The audio is mono but nicely represented. The only extra is an audio commentary and a very brief stills gallery. A making of featurette would have been nice. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)