Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Directed by John Ford

There appear to be two opinions on John Ford’s 1939 movie Drums Along the Mohawk. One is that it is a lesser Ford movie, one with good elements but overall not up there with movies like The Searchers. The other opinion is that it is up there with movies like The Searchers, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and My Darling Clementine.

For the most part, I fall into the first group. It’s a good movie but it just doesn’t do anything for me like some of Ford’s films.

Starring Henry Fonda and the curiously cast Claudette Colbert, Drums Along the Mohawk is essentially a Ford western though it’s set not in the west but in the east at the time of the American revolutionary war.

Fonda, as Gil Martin, brings his new wife Lana (played by Colbert) to the Mohawk Valley, which is quite a change for her given that she has been raised in much more genteel surroundings.

Her new home is a cabin in a land that requires hard, physical work and is populated by people far more down to earth than her sophisticated upbringing has accustomed her to.

Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert as Gilbert and Lana Martin in Drums Along the Mohawk.

Unfortunately for the Martins, warlike Indians end up burning down their home. Equally unfortunate, at least for modern viewers, other than the fact they are aligned with the British, there is no background or other information about the First Nations people in the film.

Their characterization is simply as blood-mad, half-naked lunatics.

To be fair to Ford, his interest in the film is not in the particulars of history, especially cultural history. He’s interested in the character of the people he saw as those who gave birth to the United States as a country. Still, I think this aspect is a failing in the film. It’s a little too one-sided and, put bluntly, wrong.

Visually, however, there is a great deal to recommend the film. It certainly has a John Ford look, particularly in some of the horizon shots. And there is a particularly nice sequence, perhaps a bit long, where Henry Fonda’s character is chased as he runs to get help for his besieged community.

Overall, this is a good movie but far from great. If you like John Ford, you’re certain to like this film though I think it’s unlikely it would become a favourite.

Edna May Oliver as Sarah McKlennar and Claudette Colbert in Drums Along the Mohawk.

(The following refers to the 2005 20th Century Fox DVD release.)

The image quality of this disc is very strange indeed. Initially, I was going to complain about it but after seeing the special features (which are scant) I changed my mind. It appears an effort, perhaps even considerable effort, has been put into restoring the film. (There’s a restoration comparison as the primary special feature.)

My guess, and it’s only a guess since I have no way of knowing, is that the film must have been in fairly poor condition and that some elements could not be restored.

While generally there is a pretty clean, almost crisp image, there are numerous scenes where the image is blotchy, faded or somehow out of focus. It almost looks double-imaged at times.

It makes for a very uneven look.

I’m nowhere close to being an expert on these things. I really only know what my eyes tell me -– though I can’t always explain what I’m seeing. But in this case, there are some scenes that look very poor. It seems to me these tend to be second-unit, scene-setting kinds of shots. Generally, once the camera is on the actors the image corrects itself (so to speak).

A more technically knowledgeable person could probably explain this better than I. Let’s hope one of them sees the disc and writes their own review.

(By the way, the special features on this disc are restricted to the restoration comparison and a theatrical trailer. The trailer is actually interesting in that it is black and white. It made me think I might have preferred this movie done that way.

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