Drums Along the Mohawk’s historical inaccuracies and oversights hinder its myriad narrative joys and rich aesthetic design. Set during the lead-up to the Battle of Saratoga, with American settlers squaring off against Native Americans and Tories in the Mohawk Valley, John Ford’s inaugural foray into color doesn’t do much to give full context to the time. The settlers are naïve but ultimately righteous heroes; the Tories are nefarious villains and infiltrators; the Native Americans are angry heathens on the warpath. The savagery enacted by the Tories and Americans during the settling of the land is essentially neglected. It says enough about this frustrating work that Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert), the presumed heroine of the story, screams bloody murder at the very sight of a stoic, peaceful Native American on her honeymoon night with Gil (Henry Fonda), a frontier man.
As always with Ford, however, ignorance never comes without a price. When Lana shrieks at the sight of Blue Black (Chief John Big Tree), a close friend and consort of Gil’s, she goes into a kind of delirium, a foolish and ugly panic that Gil slaps out of her. Portraying the main female character as volatile and crazed in her emotions and in need of control from her man is crude, but the sequence ultimately works as a brilliant point of reference to see how much she grows in the wilderness of the 13 colonies, still heavily disputed territory at the time. A western in the woods, Drums Along the Mohawk makes the coalescing of Gil and Lana into a budding family part and parcel of the formation of America and its jagged history.
If Ford was, per Jonathan Lethem, “a poet in black and white,” he became a sharp impressionist in color. The finely calibrated stillness of Ford’s shots, occasionally ravished by the greens, reds, and blues of the colonial wardrobe, gives the film a painterly quality, as if Ford had animated a William Ranney portrait. Each frame radiates rugged beauty, but this doesn’t soften Ford’s no-bull directness when depicting the eruptive landscape of the Revolutionary War. Gil and Lana are without a home of their own for most of the film, their first cabin being burned to the ground during an attack, and when Gil and the troops return from the bloody Battle of Oriskany, the director details their immense casualties and injuries with unsparing detail.
As is Ford’s wont, a sense of multifarious community purveys, with Gil and Lana finally settling down as live-in servants for rough but kindly Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver), a wealthy widow. (Ford favorite Ward Bond also shows up as a good-hearted blowhard who befriends and fights alongside Gil.) Ford’s refined ability to sculpt the ever-shifting power structures of small-scale societies helps the film’s narrative to fully coalesce by the end, but there’s an overall sickliness to Drums Along the Mohawk due to its biased nationalism. In a way, the film is a classic transitional work, with its narrative charting a change less violent, but just as fractious as Ford’s artistry and form was going through. Of course, it would take another 17 years, with the release of The Searchers, to witness Ford’s full capacity for social and historical transformation, to take unflinching stock of the madness of racism and self-delusion that he indulged.
The print used for this transfer is in Eastmancolor, a much less sharper process than Technicolor. As such, there are problems with the color palette: skin tones are just a bit oversaturated and contrast, though serviceable, isn’t as sharp as one would hope. Still, Twilight Time’s transfer lands on the higher side of serviceable. Textures and detail come through clearly throughout and the bold colors of the wardrobe, though not sterling, remain intoxicating. If you haven’t had the privilege of seeing this on the big screen, this is the best way to see Drums Along the Mohawk. And the audio is markedly strong, with dialogue crisply out front and Alfred Newman’s score and wild noise mixing beautifully in the back.
"Becoming John Ford" is a lovingly informative and often insightful feature-length documentary on Ford’s ever-refined artistry and life in Hollywood. It’s not put together particularly well, but for anyone interested in the filmmaker, it will likely prove an essential, fascinating watch. Walter Hill, a director clearly heavily influenced by Ford’s work, gives voice to some of his idol’s first-person statements and letters via voiceover. Then there’s the audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, which covers nearly everything about the film’s production and the director’s personal temperament at the time. Kirgo proves to be especially knowledgeable about what went into the production, putting a distinct stress on the cast’s relationship with the material and Ford. Some more information on the actual events that Ford depicts would have been nice, but there’s plenty of juicy stuff here for Ford fanatics. A trailer is also included.
John Ford’s hugely fascinating and troublesome debut in color gets a serviceable but unremarkable A/V transfer from Twilight Time, but is packaged with two essential supplements for Ford fanatics.