What more can be said of director John Ford; the movie’s unofficial poet laureate of the official mythology on the American west? The caustic, curmudgeonly Ford frequently displayed an outward contempt for actors and authority figures. But I suspect Ford’s exquisite visualizations of the frontier come much closer to the metal of the man, his outward astringency used as a mask or shield to will his masterpieces into existence come hell or high water. And Ford, for all his temperament, was an artist; his camera eye astute and lyrical as any famed canvas graced by the brush strokes of a Charles Marion Russell, George Catlin or Frederick Remington. In 1939, Ford debuted a rarity in his otherwise monochromatic canon: the lavish Technicolor masterpiece - Drums Along the Mohawk; imbued with familiar themes of struggle and hardship, the towering buttresses of Monument Valley traded for the harrowing milieu of revolutionary conflict.
For one reason or another, the nation’s turbulent birth has always presented America’s filmmakers with a quandary – lengthy, episodic and malignantly disorganized chaos defying the conventional Hollywood narrative. Thematically, every war contains elements rife for melodrama. And Ford could revel in his aesthetical mastery of rural/agrarian topographies; the impediments of wild animal and Iroquois attacks notwithstanding; the nascent rise of a new nation – the so-called ‘grand experiment’ rebelliously refusing to succumb to the onslaught of the British.
War and gallantry are frequently confused; intermingled in the mind’s eye as valorous death and chivalry run amuck; the battle fatigue of the Revolutionary War’s incongruously planned and haphazardly executed bloody conflicts lacking overall arc or trajectory to satisfy the cinema storyteller’s needs. Walter D. Edmonds’ novel was, in fact, heavily rewritten by screenwriters, Sonja Levien and Lamar Trotti both to assuage the governing body of censorship in Hollywood, but also to satiate Ford’s first-rate romanticized portrait of America at its burgeoning crossroads – the untamed, herein epitomized by the native population, and the entrenched, most definitely characterized, though queerly camouflaged in the movie as the marauding Tories (British).
Here too it is perhaps obvious, though nevertheless prudent to remind the viewer that Drums Along The Mohawk was made during a twelve month period in Hollywood’s illustrious golden age marked by such iconic movies as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind. Many have attempted to theorize why 1939 should have yielded such an embarrassment of riches; Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, The Women, Of Mice and Men, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Ninotchka and The Hunchback of Notre Dame among them – each the quintessence of their respective genres. But at least in retrospect the year 1939 also serves as the inevitable turning point in the debacle soon to engulf the European hemisphere in a holocaust of fear and flames. Seen in this light, Drums Along The Mohawk is perhaps ever more John Ford’s personal declaration against the war; the colonialists prideful when pitted against seemingly insurmountable odds, refusing to bow to the will of omnipotent forces invading from abroad.
Given 1939’s political climate, and America’s then current Anglo-alliance soon to lure the United States into its theater of war, Ford and 2oth Century-Fox studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck silently concurred that all references to the British as opponents of America’s early freedom should be excised from the movie. Hence, the elemental conflict in Drums Along the Mohawk remains somewhat emasculated. The First Nation’s peoples manipulated by ‘Tory’ forces are represented almost exclusively by a rather rancid cliché: the patch-eyed villain, Caldwell (John Carradine) with narrowly a ‘red coat’ in sight. It’s a minor distinction, perhaps, but one that arguably blunts the overall impact of the movie. Thankfully, Drums Along The Mohawk isn’t really about the war – or rather, is – as seen through the eyes of a pair of newlyweds: starry-eyed colonialist Gil Martin (Henry Fonda) and his highborn bride, Magdelana ‘Lana’ Borst (Claudette Colbert), brought down a peg or two after their departure from her family’s stately home in Albany. Over the course of the next 104 minutes each will have their hearts repeatedly broken. But only one will experience a miraculous conversion; the symbolic stoicism of America’s boastful resolve heartily exemplified in the unlikeliest tabernacle: a privileged woman stirred to grass-roots patriotism through hard work and exposure to cruelties inflicted on her livelihood by these wide-open spaces.
Ford’s dramatic tapestry in Drums Along The Mohawk is greatly enhanced by his superior use of 3-strip Technicolor (Ford’s first color feature, in fact). Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon’s gorgeous cinematography recreate Albert Bierstadt-inspired coniferous backdrops, the rustic Dixie National Forest in Utah subbing in for the Mohawk Valley. Zanuck very reluctantly agreed to the expenditures for this location shoot (Ford would have preferred New York state) – and at a time when virtually every studio worked within the confines of its own back lot and sound stages. But Zanuck would lament his decision when inclement weather sent the project fiscal budget into a tailspin. Yet, nothing could dissuade Ford from his vision – perhaps, because nothing ever did; the man as pig-headed, stern and steadfast, particularly when he blindly believed in the work and the importance of achieving what he had initially set out to do.
Thus, Drums Along The Mohawk emerged as something of Ford’s cause célèbre against Zanuck, the elements, and a decidedly cheeky star in Claudette Colbert who, apart from constantly worrying she would not photograph flatteringly in glorious Technicolor, repeatedly tested Ford’s patience with her own demands. Colbert, who could be counted upon to be obstreperous and occasionally arrogant – usually getting her way in the end – had decidedly met her match in the equally intractable Ford. “They pay me to direct, honey,” Ford explained to Colbert, “What do they pay you to do?” Colbert and Ford were, in fact, evenly matched in their sparring, she having committed almost as many works to celluloid as him.
If Ford’s attitude toward Colbert was less than conciliatory his quiet admiration of Henry Fonda remained unchanged and steadfast. Fonda’s career had been given an immeasurable boost by his being cast as the great emancipator in Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), arguably Fonda’s most promising work to date. And like Ford’s other perennial favorite – John Wayne – with who Ford had just finished shooting Stagecoach (1939) – Henry Fonda was a ‘real ‘reel’ man’ on the screen; one whose presence alone belied ‘acting.’ In viewing Drums Along the Mohawk today, the stylistic differences between Fonda and Colbert are immediate evident and occasionally jarring; her affected Park Avenue mannerisms juxtaposed against Fonda’s never faltering earthy appeal as the ‘every man’. Yet, despite this chasm in their performances, Fonda and Colbert manage to discover an uncharted territory of common ground somewhere in the middle, complimentary and cementing their appeal as the romantic leads of the piece.
There is, of course, at least one other truly outstanding performance to consider in the movie; that of the ebunkular New England widow, Mrs. McKlennar (played by the irascible and irreplaceable Edna May Oliver); a very fiery and equally hilarious anchor to Ford’s middle and last acts. Oliver manages a rather sad-eyed passionate kiss with Gil to send him on his way into battle. She also finagles an even more lusty exchange with bumpkin frontiersman, Adam Hartman (Ward Bond); all the while remaining insubordinate, if evergreen to her late husband, Barney’s memory. And Ford has rounded out his cast with an exceptionally fine roster of seasoned pros to flatter the principals, populating even the smallest cameo with instantly recognizable faces at a glance; Clara Blandick, Robert Grieg, Ward Bond, and, Jessie Ralph among them.
Our story begins in 1776, with Gil and Lana’s marriage in her parent’s stately home in Albany. Gilbert Martin (Gil) has promised Lana the world. She, of course, expects it – having come from a rather pampered Puritan upbringing, with a considerable dowry that includes a set of dishes and a prized cow. Ford quickly dispels such notions compliant to those stored-up dreams in a young girl’s mind. Stopping overnight at the King’s Inn, the couple is introduced to the mysterious Caldwell (John Carradine) who wastes no time inquiring about Gil’s political views. Late the next afternoon under ominous skies and a gathering storm Gil and Lana arrive at Deerfield, the meager farmhouse he built with his own two hands. Lana’s thinly veiled first impressions decidedly echo her disappointments, her emotional and physical exhaustion stirred into a frenzy after laying eyes on the shadowy figure of Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree); a benevolent Seneca whom Lana immediately mistakes as a blood-thirsty ‘red skin’. Lana is inconsolable, brought back from the brink of her mania by a firm slap across the cheek – a very rude awakening indeed. Blue Back returns with a stick, encouraging Gil to beat Lana until she becomes a ‘good wife’.
Ford’s movies don’t usually falter – especially in their initial establishment of male/female relationships. Yet herein the director seems genuinely reticent. Our first scenes with Gil and Lana are little more than fragmented snapshots. Lana’s premature disillusionment dovetails into a newfound pioneer-woman’s spirit that is all but dismantled after Deerfield is burnt to the ground by the Tory’s complicit Iroquois warriors; her devotion in marriage galvanized only by the last act. Gil and Lana’s flourishing love of the land parallels their more meaningful passion for each other. It’s a curious analogy, one not altogether efficacious with Ford’s more grandiose set pieces jam-packing and frequently interrupting this more intimate plotline.
After taking refuge with the others inside a nearby fort, Lana suggest to Gil she could hire herself out to Mrs. McKlennar; the idea, at first, repugnant to Gil who briefly contemplates returning to the relative safety of ‘polite society’ back in Albany. But Lana has had more than a taste of Gil’s idyllic freedom, her love of this untamed wilderness momentarily outsizing his own. Gil and Lana are immediately hired by the widow McKlennar to look after the property; Gil agreeing to work the farm while Lana mends and sews. News of an advancing Tory uprising causes the town’s cleric, Rev. Rosenkrantz (Arthur Shields) to side with the edicts of Gen. Nicholas Herkimer (Roger Imhof) who orders every available man into immediate conscription or face execution for treason. Gil marches off with the other soldiers, including newlywed George Weaver (Arthur Aylesworth) and Adam Hartman; Lana following the men down the road, though careful not to let Gil see her.
The widow McKlennar is a caustic mule, but one with a saintly 14kt heart of gold. Her astute reflections on life and loss are a strange comfort to Lana until the eve of another violent thunderstorm; the stragglers from the Battle of Oriskany emerging bloody but unbowed – all except Gil whom Lana eventually discovers nearly unconscious and wounded by the edge of the fence. Dr. Petry (Russell Simons) orders the amputation of Gen. Herkimer’s leg without the benefit of anesthesia; the General administered a strong brandy and the surgery mercifully taking place off camera. Gil regales Lana with their accursed victory. It is a moment of sheer and unsurpassed eloquence for Fonda, whose recital of careworn battle details was improvised by Ford asking Fonda impromptu questions from off camera, later edited out and interpolated with close-ups of Colbert’s Lana tending her husband’s shoulder wound. Amidst the chaos, warmly lit by kerosene lamps Ford’s painterly style generates a bizarre, almost cozy camaraderie. However, in the steely gray of dawn victory looks quite different; the mood dampened by Herkimer’s death and the realization that the conflict rages on.
Not long after the widow McKlennar is visited by two Iroquois who torch her home but manage to save the widow after she staunchly refuses to vacate her marital bed. Gil, Lana, McKlennar and her housemaid, Daisy (Beulah Hall Jones) retreat to the fort, pursued by the Iroquois warriors under Caldwell’s command. The fort endures repeated attacks and local Joe Boleo (Francis Ford – John Ford’s brother) elects to make a run into the forest for help. He is captured and bound to a hay wagon set afire as Gil and Adam look on before putting Joe out of his misery. The widow McKlennar is mortally wounded by a stray arrow, dying in Adam’s arms, a chillingly poignant farewell to what is arguably the movie’s most memorable character.
With supplies and ammunitions dwindling Gil decides to make a break into the forest. He is pursued by a trio of Iroquois but eventually escapes, returning in the nick of time with army reserves. Asked about Caldwell, Blue Back proudly places the traitor’s cap upon his own head, the implication pointedly clear. Amidst the carnage, Lana and Gil are reunited. Word arrives of Gen. Cornwallis’ surrender and Washington’s victory is introduced to the survivors the following day, by the appearance of America’s ‘pretty’ flag hoisted atop the church steeple as the beleaguered, but hopeful, look on; Ford’s penultimate flag-waving poeticism diffused by Gil’s more frank observation, “I reckon we better get back to work. There’s going to be a heap to do from now on!”
Drums Along The Mohawk is often overlooked in John Ford’s repertoire, perhaps because, in hindsight, it remains such an anomaly; Ford’s singular critique of the American Revolutionary War and his only work in color until 1948’s unabashedly sentimental 3 Godfathers. Yet Drums Along The Mohawk contains kernels of truth indigenous to every John Ford movie preceding it; his own sense of community and each eccentric individual’s place in it enriching the intimacy and the grandeur of life’s intricately woven tapestry. Fair enough, the film lacks an overall dramatic arc, particularly during its first third leading up to the burning destruction of Deerfield. Occasionally, the action can seem ever-so-slightly strained or even, at times, relying almost exclusively on characterization to carry a plot point.
Yet Ford’s fidelity to the unfocused mood and pace of the Revolutionary War is uncanny. His characters are not on a vision quest. They are, in fact, inspired by an intuitive thirst for the as yet undetermined promise later to be coined as the ‘American dream’; to live, love and build a world out of the fertile nothingness that surrounds, and with their own two hands. This is the message that resonates throughout Ford’s masterwork with all the clanging clarity of the Liberty Bell (again, not yet a part of the American way of life) though perhaps symbolically represented within the movie as the tolling of the fort’s church clapper; Ford and his scenarists looking beyond the film’s vignettes, but also reminding the audience of the many miracles that have come to pass since the movie’s own timeline that will never come to pass for our protagonists.
Drums Along The Mohawk is a superior effort. In any other year it so easily would have been Oscar-nominated as Best Picture. That it received only two lesser nominations in 1939, one for Edna May Oliver’s Best Supporting Actress, the other for Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon’s cinematography, is arguably forgivable, given the tidal wave of accolades afforded Selznick’s Gone With The Wind; the pluperfect paradigm of studio-made, Hollywood-born, Technicolor epics. That the reputation of Drums Along The Mohawk has inexplicably faded over the years is an oversight perhaps more recently rectified by our own renewal of interest in John Ford’s formidable reputation and career.
Ford, who gave us so many high-caliber movies of such poignant and varied characterizations, consistently top-notched; who mythologized the west for a generation who never knew it any other way, and, as no one of his ilk could (and virtually none who have followed him has been able); who cast his critical eye along the vacant mesas or thickening woods to seek out, discover and celebrate the humanity of a bygone folk; these have since evolved as lore to represent a distinctly American way of life – mostly imagined. There has never been, and will likely never be another John Ford. The times are not conducive to his temperamental artisan. And the era in film-making that governed, afforded, approved and sustained Ford’s pursuit of perfection is no more. Yet, John Ford’s America survives. Hence, when we see a film by John Ford, history – whatever its imperfections – melts from view and the Fordian principles of America become America itself for just an hour or two. It is a world, quite simply, without parallel; imbued with optimism, the strength of Ford’s own convictions and a repeal of the oft’ popularized notion today that America’s best days are a thing of the past. A Ford film is therefore a celebration of America: the beautiful - disseminating hope from darkness, and elevating nostalgia, pride in one’s self and one’s country, and, that other oft’ bastardized notion of blind patriotism into a very fine art indeed.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release of Drums Along The Mohawk is cause for celebration. The 1080p transfer exhibits some gorgeous Technicolor hues. Thanks in part to a stunning restoration performed several years ago, and the advanced clarity of a new hi-definition master, the movie belies its 75 year vintage. Contrast seems just a tad weaker at the start; flesh tones marginally paler than they appear throughout the rest of the movie. The image is bright without contrast boosting. Technicolor being a grain-concealing process, film grain throughout this presentation looks marvelous. Age-related and digital artifacts are a non-issue. The DTS mono audio sounds just a tad strident during Alfred Newman’s main title, but again, improves almost immediately thereafter. Although the liner notes indicate an ‘isolated score’ prepared by Mike Matessino, no such audio option exists on this disc. * Please note: Screen Archives’ Twilight Time’s internet page clearly indicates that no surviving elements exist for an isolated score, so the insert is obviously a misprint.
But we are well compensated for this absence by two spectacular extra features – each worth the price of admission. The first is Becoming John Ford – Nick Redman’s utterly fascinating retrospective from 2007, produced for, and previously released in conjunction with, Fox Home Video’s lavishly appointed Ford At Fox DVD box set – alas currently out of print. Redman, who also co-produced this feature-length biography gains spellbinding insight into the director’s career from such notable historians as James D’arc and Rudy Behlmer; Julie Kirgo’s lyrical writing (also showcased in the extensive liner notes) and Bengt Jonsson’s moody cinematography conspire to create one of the best Hollywood back stories about a true giant in the industry. The second extra that definitely makes this disc a ‘must have’ is the Redman/Kirgo audio commentary – feature-length and exceptionally detailed. Great stuff – as anticipated. We also get Fox’s badly worn B&W theatrical trailer. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)