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Category:    Home > Reviews > Western > Drama > Politics > Drums Along the Mohawk (1939/Fox/Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray)

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939/Fox/Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray)

Picture: B Sound: B Extras: B+ Film: B+

PLEASE NOTE: This Blu-ray disc is now only available from our friends at Twilight Time, only 3,000 copies have been produced and it can be ordered from the link below.

Over a nine month period, from June 1939 to March 1940, director John Ford and actor Henry Fonda collaborated on a sort of cinematic triptych of America. They made three consecutive films together that, when taken together, present an image of the country at the crossroads.

The first, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), finds Fonda as Great Emancipator when he was still trying cases as a small-town lawyer, when he could easily have diverted away from the course that led to the White House. The third film, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), is by far the more ambitious - and urgent - of the cycle. The Joads, those hopeless Okies teetering between everyday poverty and absolute destitution, very much spoke to the society many viewers still found themselves in. And Fonda, as the iconic Tom Joad, represented an America on the razor's edge of revolution.

The second Ford-Fonda collaboration, Drums Along the Mohawk (1940), recently released on limited edition Blu-ray by Twilight Time, is concerned with the actual Revolution. It's also the part of the series that has received far less attention. That's no surprise, watching it today. It's tale of a pioneering farmer, Gil (Fonda), and his new wife, Lana (Claudette Colbert), trying to make a life on the upstate New York frontier in the days before the Revolution is the stuff of drawing-room melodrama. They live under constant threat of Indians (in this case the Mohawk), rely on a tight-knit community of locals to keep each other safe, and the climax of the film takes place in a fort as the proto-Americans defend their homestead and lives against a British-led Indian attack.

The film is front-loaded with all the stodginess of Young Mr. Lincoln, but as it goes on you can see Ford becoming more ambitious. Not only does the action pick up, but Ford is secure enough to slow things down for tender moments amidst the chaos of war. The scene between Gil and Lana in a kitchen bivouac is masterful, as are the heroic payoffs given to many of the kooky supporting characters at the final fort battle (the death of cranky old widower Mrs. McKlennar is wrenching). But it's not just in pacing where Ford evolves before our eyes.

There's plenty of rah-rah flag-waving in Drums Along the Mohawk. The scene of the Continental Army raising the Stars and Stripes over the fort as the Revolution (and film) ends drips with pulse-quickening patriotism. But the rest of the film is concerned with refining Ford's idea of what it means to be American. In this case, as it does in his westerns, it means working together with friends and neighbors to bring order and stability to a chaotic world. American society is founded on cooperation, but dependent on the individual. And in this, Fonda, free of Lincoln, is the perfect canvas. With his drawl, long face, and emotive eyes, he conveys the excitement and wonder of independence, but also the pain and sorrow that comes with fighting for it. Fonda would deploy those traits again, to a devastating effect, in The Grapes of Wrath.

Indeed, Drums Along the Mohawk can be seen as a bookend - historically and cinematically - with The Grapes of Wrath. There is a joyful quality to the film as Gil and Lana become two of the first citizens of the now-independent America. They have land and a baby and a seemingly endless frontier. In other words, the American Dream. But in the span of one film, that dream has withered, literally to dust, as pioneering farmers of a different sort are cast off their land by a breed of marauders just as vicious as the Mohawk: Bankers. There's a palpable sense of the end of America in The Grapes of Wrath, which injects an ominous, almost ironic sensibility into Drums Along the Mohawk when viewed in the context of the Ford-Fonda triptych.

You could argue Ford's westerns constitute a running interrogation of America, from its racism (The Searchers) to its sense of justice (My Darling Clementine) to its monumentalizing of heroes (The Man Who Shot LIberty Valance). But there's something different happening in the three-film cycle of Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, and The Grapes of Wrath. They form a sustained, monumental work - a cinematic tapestry of America at its most vulnerable. Drums Along the Mohawk might be the lesser known of the three, but it's a film that engages in conversation with the ones that immediately precede and follow it. They make it better, and it returns the favor.

Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation of Drums Along the Mohawk is quite good. Ford's first Technicolor film really pops in the high-definition format. Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon's Oscar-nominated cinematography is lush and rich, but also restrained. We notice how beautiful the film looks without being distracted by some overly chromatic element of the frame. On the audio side, this is a film from 1939, so as long as we can hear the dialogue things are OK. The disc has a 1.0 lossless DTS-HD MA Mono track, and it more than does the job.

Extras-wise, this set has the Twilight Time-standard trailer and liner notes by Julie Kirgo. There is no isolated score because, according to Twilight Time, the music tracks have not survived. Instead, we get a commentary with film historians Kirgo and Nick Redman, as well as the feature-length documentary Becoming John Ford. The documentary was originally released in 2007 as part of Twentieth Century Fox's massive Ford at Fox box set, and it's a decent primer on the early days of Ford's career. But because it was produced by Fox, it reflects Ford's time at the studio exclusively. That means no discussion of Stagecoach, which was released by United Artists (a catalog Fox now ironically distributes for MGM) the same year Fox released Drums Along the Mohawk. It's an understandable omission. Still, it's a vital film in Ford's oeuvre and to ignore it feels petty. Worse, it makes you wish you were watching a more comprehensive exploration of Ford's career.

That said, this is a great complement of extras, and it rounds out an excellent Blu-ray presentation of an often-overlooked gem in Ford's filmography.

To order, buy it and other great exclusives while supplies last at this link:


- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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