Director John Ford had a very memorable 1939: he turned out three bona fide classics of American cinema: Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk. The latter, a splendid patchwork quilt look at the Mohawk River Valley during the years of the Revolutionary War, offered his usual unbeatable combination of interesting characters, picturesque settings, and a story that combined humor, action, and drama into an appetizing cinematic meal.
Distributed By: Twilight Time
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English 1.0 DTS-HDMA (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 45 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-raykeep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 09/10/2013
After their marriage in 1776, newlyweds Gilbert (Henry Fonda) and Lana (Claudette Colbert) Martin travel from Albany, New York, to the Mohawk River Valley settlement of Deerfield where Gilbert has some land and a farmhouse already built. The young couple no sooner get their crops in the ground than Indians raid their farm and burn it to the ground. With no funds to start over there, they become the caretakers for Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver), a widow with no overseer and a house and grounds too large for her to handle. Though the Martins thrive under her stewardship, the Revolutionary War continues to intrude on their happiness. There are constant skirmishes with the Indians and local Tories (led by John Carradine’s dastardly Caldwell), and fighting often becomes so severe that the settlers frequently must retreat inside the local fort for protection.
The Production Rating: 4.5/5
With the action covering the final five years of the Revolutionary War, the plotting is of necessity episodic (the script is by Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien based on the novel by Walter D. Edmonds), but that’s not detrimental to the film in any way since the bits and pieces of Mohawk Valley life we do see contain both the good and the bad just like in real life. Ford, of course, makes sure that we see something other than constant fighting and bloodshed; we also get wonderful domestic scenes where Gil waits on the birth of his first child, where the local townsfolk hold a celebration at the end of the harvest season, where the land gets cleared with the entire settlement working together to help one another, and we attend a typical church service with its mix of the gospel, local advertisements, and territory business. Those scenes are just as intriguing in their own way as the action-filled raids and battles Ford is forced to show us capped, of course, by the film’s most famous sequence: the foot race for help over what appears to be a thirty-six hour period as the master director captures the silhouettes of his runners set against a breathtaking sunrise and then follows the runners through meadows, streams, and dense forests filled with downed trees and underbrush which would conquer all but the most fleet-footed. There are also those painterly vistas he’s so famous for: Lana on a summit watching her man march off to war on a long road down below, the square dance filmed in lower light levels catching the looks of pure pleasure and contentment on the faces of the participants, the several horrifying raids where one’s prized possessions are burned before their very eyes, and, naturally, the climactic fort raid and rescue.
Henry Fonda was born to play these “people of the earth” roles, and his Gilbert Martin is one of his strongest career performances: pure and noble and sincere but without embellishment. Claudette Colbert isn’t exactly an actress whom one would initially picture as a pioneer woman, but she jumps into the role with zest and eventually does herself proud (though one never really gets to see her with her face dirty and hair askew which might have added to her character). Edna May Oliver walks off with all of her scenes (and the film’s sole Oscar nomination) as the Widow McKlennar, straight-talking and down-to-earth and yet still filled with a zest for living. Arthur Shields as the local preacher and Ward Bond as the burly yet hearty settler Adam Helmer (who was actually the one who made the run in historical record) add wonderful color to the cast of characters as do Jessie Ralph as the Martin’s no-nonsense neighbor, John Carradine as the story’s primary villain, Eddie Collins as a drunken local, Charles Tannen as the younger doctor (often in over his head dealing with battle injuries), and Chief Big Tree as Gil’s Indian friend Blue Back, loyal to the settlers instead of his own Iroquois.
The film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and with 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. This is another of the astonishing Fox resuscitation efforts making a silk near-Technicolor purse out of the Eastmancolor sow’s ears the company was left with after ditching their original three-strip elements in the 1970s. Sharpness is consistently terrific with loads of details in hair, facial features, natural surroundings, and clothes fabrics. The color is strongest with blues, reds, and those bright orange flames which pop up throughout the feature. Greens are less vibrant, however (apart from a striking tunic worn by Ward Bond late in the movie), and black levels are very strong. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 sound mix has remarkable fidelity for elements this antique. Dialogue has been expertly recorded and is never compromised by Alfred Newman’s stirring music score (abetted with some traditional standards) or the sound effects which give more than reasonable power to the gunshots and cannon fire contained in the film. There are no age-related artifacts such as hiss or crackle that distract from the experience either.
Audio Rating: 4.5/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Julie Kirgo and music and film producer/director Nick Redman contribute the audio commentary. The former does the majority of the reportage and analysis of the film with the latter asking intelligent questions which draw out reasonable responses.
Special Features Rating: 3/5
Theatrical Trailer (2:17, SD)
Becoming John Ford (1:33:19, SD): a 2007 feature documentary on the film career of director John Ford concentrating on his silent films and the respectfully contentious relationship with 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck lasting from 1937 (Wee Willie Winkie) through 1946 (My Darling Clementine). Directed by Nick Redman, it’s more artistic in nature than your standard director documentary and is loaded with interesting information. The feature is graced with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix.
Six-Page Booklet: includes some film stills, the poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo's intriguing defense of the film (it doesn't really need it; it speaks for itself, but bravo for the effort), and some comments about the also included Becoming John Ford in which she served as associate producer.
A classic bit of Americana from director John Ford containing sterling performances from Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, and Edna May Oliver (among many others), Drums Along the Mohawk looks and sounds far better than it has any right to thanks to enterprising work by Schawn Belston and his crew and brought to high definition home video in a 3,000 copy edition by Twilight Time. Those interested should go to www.screenarchives.com to see if copies are still available. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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