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Drums Along the Mohawk

If one wanted to make the argument that John Ford was the greatest of all 20th century American film directors, one need only look at his most prolific three years, during which he completed seven films — five of them unqualified masterpieces. It was a flurry of activity cut short only by the outbreak of war. How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) were preceded not only by Hollywood's legendary year of classics, but also by Ford's most astounding handful of months — Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk all arrived in theaters between March and November of 1939. Of these, Stagecoach looms largest as the feature film that elevated the western genre from Poverty Row to major studio product. But Mohawk is as Fordian as any title in the bunch, containing the cinematic motifs that would reappear throughout the director's career. Henry Fonda stars as Gil Martin, a simple farmer from Deerfield, New York, who marries sophisticated city girl Lana (Claudette Colbert), whisking her away after the wedding to his remote upstate cabin. It's 1776, and colonial independence has led to war, as well as the formation of a garrison in Gil's territory, which he dutifully joins. However, while Lana adapts to the hardship of rural life, an attack by Senecas (bolstered by British agents) on the Martin farm leaves them homeless. Turning to a curt-but-generous widow (Edna May Oliver), they take up a new life as tenant farmers. But the War of Independence is never distant, and before long Gil departs to serve his nascent country, leaving Lana to wonder if he will return alive. Drums Along the Mohawk was John Ford's first color film, and while it lacks the resonance found in his black-and-white cinematography from the period, he clearly enjoys utilizing his Technicolor palette in everything from close-ups of top-billed Claudette Colbert to a dramatic battle at dawn, with a fleeing Henry Fonda captured under an imposing red and yellow sky. However, it still remains thematically in line with his prewar output (as well as much of his later work), offering not only sharp moments of action, but also an acute illustration of frontier hardship. In fact, the war itself occupies perhaps a third of the film's running time, and Ford resisted shooting a studio-imposed battle so much he simply had Fonda recall it in a long, moving monologue. Typical for the director, he elicits a storied richness from details, asides, and subplots, and while we're never allowed to forget that the future of the United States is at stake (which the film's coda unapologetically underlines), expressions of community include a meadow-clearing and a dance — cooperative activity that gains resonance in the final battle. Humor arrives most pointedly in the form of a local parson who informs his congregation that all deserters will be hung (adding a somber "Amen" after the proclamation), and while elements of Ford's oft-alleged racism and sexism abound (Fonda hangs a stick on the mantle, meant to beat errant wives), it is just as much women as men who defend the community — with lethal force when necessary. Moreover, while the Seneca invaders whoop it up like Hollywood red-men, they are led by a sinister British spy (John Carradine) — the American's best ally in their cause is a lone Indian, Blue Back (Chief Big Tree), who at the story's end takes his rightful place in the new nation. Fox's DVD release of Drums Along the Mohawk offers a solid transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from restored source materials that are excellent — only in a few moments does the three-strip Technicolor flutter or go into soft-focus, and collateral wear is almost nonexistent. Audio options include mono and stereo DD 2.0 tracks, which are crisp and clear. Supplements include a restoration comparison and a trailer. Keep-case.

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