The Movie Waffler DVD Review - <i>Drums Along the Mohawk</i> (1939) | The Movie Waffler

DVD Review - Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

DVD reissue of John Ford's frontier drama from Odyssey DVD.

Directed by: John Ford
Starring: Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, John Carradine, Edna May Oliver, Eddie Collins

On a good day John Ford is up there with the very best, think the Cavalry trilogy or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and you are not only watching the best of the West, you are also watching some of the best films ever made. On second thoughts, scrap that, go and watch them now then come back. Drums Along the Mohawk may not be up there with his greatest work, but it’s still a spry, rousing work, shot in the unfussy but militarily precise way that has become a Ford trademark.
Shot in technicolor (his first film in the format), this is a film crying out for a bluray restoration. Like watching a stunning watercolour painting, the old process gives the film a dreamlike, heightened sense of reality. A shame then that all we get is a no frills DVD release. That said, it looks in good, if not pristine, condition, and is still a worthy addition to any film library.
A mixture of frontier and sparring couples picture, this is a lighter work, more attuned to the comedy stylings of The Quiet Man than the more jaundiced view of the west in his later films. Gilbert (Fonda) marries Lana (Colbert) and whisks her off to the Mohawk Valley with just a horse, a cow and a somewhat dingy barn to live in. Oh, and a comedy Native American (Chief Big Tree) for company.
As a look at the hardships and dignity of frontier life, it is something to behold, focussing on the minutiae of the daily grind and the need for community to endure and work the land. Fonda has always had a noble everyman quality with just a touch of steel, which allows him to portray both a man of action and loyal husband, both capable and sensitive. Colbert, as his wife Lana, initially looks to have the shrill shrew role, screaming and simpering in her new life, but soon reveals a resolve that makes her the equal of Fonda, whilst still needing to be saved in the final act.
Peril, as always in this type of film, is never far away, but in truth the attacking Native Americans under the control of one eyed Tory Caldwell (Carradine) are something of a damp squib. Carradine is set up as the big bad early on when the Martins meet him on the way to their new home, but then seems to disappear until the climactic battle.
Assaults on their land and community seem to occur to drive the plot on but could just as easily have been a tornado or flood than an ‘Injun attack. The fortitude and strength needed to survive in the West is embodied by Mrs McKlennar (Oliver), a widow and stubborn owner of land, which Fonda and Colbert agree to work on, as they are now essentially homeless. Stubborn as a mule and twice as taciturn, she is both comic relief and stern matriarch. The scene where she berates two invading Mohawks, who are ransacking her homestead, and forces them to bring her bed out (with her on it) is definitely one for the ages.
There may be a few too many comedy drunks for the narrative to hold, but the climatic assault and dash for reinforcements are excitingly staged (although you have to excuse the age; when it comes to blood curdling assaults, this is more handbags at dawn than The Alamo). Ending on a patriotic note, which plays optimistic but also melancholic, this may not be A-list Ford, but it's great entertainment, and one that should enchant lovers of the Old West.
(No Extras; like a hardy frontiersman you will have to just make do.)