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Case Number 26358: Small Claims Court

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Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) (Blu-ray)

Twilight Time // 1939 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // October 3rd, 2013

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All Rise...

Judge Patrick Naugle's memoir will be entitled "Bongos along the Fox."

Editor's Note

Our review of The Henry Fonda Film Collection, published June 7th, 2013, is also available.

The Charge

Let the revolution begin!

The Case

It's 1776 and Gil (Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond) and Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night) are newlywed settlers who leave the original colonies and move into the rugged frontier to build themselves a home, farm, and family. When Gil and Lana endure attacks by vicious Indians—lead by an eye patch wearing Tory named Caldwell (John Carradine, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask)—the couple's homestead is burned to the ground and they are forced to start over again in the Mohawk Valley community where they're taken in by a loving but irritable widow, Mrs. McKlennar (Emma May Oliver, Pride and Prejudice). Gil and Lana are able to begin a new life in the bustling community, but find themselves—along with the rest of their new community—caught up in both the American Revolutionary War and a battle with the native Indian tribes.

In the liner notes for this new Blu-ray edition of Drums Along the Mohawk, historian Julie Kirgo notes, "Drums is a period film about the American Revolutionary War, a conflict that, despite its undeniable significance, has eluded virtually every cinematic attempt to capture it." True to form, there aren't a lot of films available—and far less classic ones—that really focus on the Revolutionary War (save for 1776, but that's a stylized musical, not a serious biopic). The Civil War, World War I and II, Vietnam, The Gulf War…all of have been recreated to both good and bad effect on film, but the American Revolutionary War seems to have been passed over by Hollywood.

In 1939 director John Ford threw his proverbial hat in the ring to bring author Walter D. Edmond's novel to the screen. The book rights were snatched up by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck for a then astonishing $25,000 and throughout the film's production there were conflicts and frustrations between both the creative and financial personnel. Zanuck was worried that Ford's film was going over both schedule and budget, prompting tension between the director and, in a rare instance for Zanuck, the producer. Ford—a notorious crankshaft—also clashed with star Claudette Colbert, who had the audacity to stand up to the director. With infuriating weather issues and the monetary funds running out, Ford was able to finally get the movie finished (in Technicolor, Ford's first) and into theaters where it became an enormous success and garnered (but did not win) two Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress.

And yet…Drums Along the Mohawk is a mostly forgotten title in the filmography of very prolific John Ford. Aside of its initial theatrical release, the film has never earned the following or respect of many other Ford films, and you'd be hard pressed to find film fans who know it by heart. This is a real shame because Drums Along the Mohawk is an entertaining and enthralling movie that finds all parties—Ford, Fonda, Colbert, and especially May Oliver—in fine form. Although the movie isn't as memorable as some of Ford's other work (including the next year's The Grapes of Warth, which would also star Henry Fonda), it's still a superior picture that gives an intimate look into one of the least cinematically explored American conflicts.

Ford's guiding hand is seen all over Drums Along the Mohawk. There's a true urgency to Gil and Lana's struggles, and the scenes where the American colonists and the Indians clash have a brutal feel even without being bloody or gory. Henry Fonda finds a nice center in the film, playing Gil as a man of moral standing (even when we aren't given any information about his life prior to the story's start). Claudette Colbert plays Lana first as a privileged shrew, but she soon finds an inner strength that allows her, by the end of the film, to slowly emerge as a tough frontier dame. Emma May Oliver—who earned an deserved Oscar nod for her role—is a joy to watch as she slings verbal tirades at those who impose upon her way of life. She's a hard, rough spinster who nonetheless has a soft center; May Oliver was one of Hollywood's most accomplished character actresses, and Drums Along the Mohawk gives her a role (one of her last) to sink her teeth into, with great effect.

If Drums Along the Mohawk has any hard failings it's that a bit of racism creeps to the surface at critical moments, jarring the viewing out of the story. Real life Indian Chief John Big Tree plays Blue Back, a Christian native who becomes one of the film's most memorable characters (his moments sitting in the church pews on Sunday are priceless). Unfortunately, the film often slaps the character with unneeded clichés, including a moment when Lana goes into temporary insanity during Blue Back's initial entrance at the Martin's homestead. Of course, one has to keep in mind that Drums Along the Mohawk was filmed in the 1930s, which was a totally different climate when it comes to race than 2013.

Drums Along the Mohawk is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 full frame in 1080p high definition. This Technicolor transfer is very good, although it's not without its flaws. There are moments where the image looks nearly flawless, and others where there's almost a weird 'striping' in the picture. It mostly happens at the beginning and subsides fairly quickly. Otherwise, this is a beautifully rendered transfer that offers viewers a look at one of Ford's forgotten gems in a brand new way. The soundtrack is prestned in DTS-HD 1.0 Mono and is appropriate for what it is. Obviously, there isn't really much in the way of surround sounds or directional effects. The biggest boost goes to Alfred Newman's patriotic music score. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.

Bonus features include an audio commentary from film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, a theatrical trailer, and the 90 minute documentary Becoming John Ford, originally available only on the exhaustive 2007 DVD box set, Ford at Fox.

Even with its flaws, I was engrossed in Drums Along the Mohawk's story and characters. The film clips along nicely (at just under two hours) and Ford keeps things always interesting, especially when he eschews a big battle scene in lieu of having Fonda's Gil recount the horrors on the battlefield to his tearful wife. It's in these small moments the film becomes more than just a pioneer drama and delves into the heart of man's tumultuous reconciliation between the horrors of war and establishing a home for his family.

The Verdict

With wonderful performances and expert direction by John Ford, this is an easy recommendation.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 93

Perp Profile

Studio: Twilight Time
Video Formats:
• Full Frame (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Blu-ray
• Classic
• Drama
• Romance
• War
• Western

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Documentary
• Trailer

Accomplices

• IMDb








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