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20th Century Fox presents
"We still have the land."
DVD ReviewAs a director, John Ford was many things, but revisionist wasn't one of them; his films, for better or worse, embody the values of manifest destiny, and that couldn't be more clear here. (It's no accident that his leading man of choice was John Wayne, and this movie was made the same year as his first collaboration with Wayne, Stagecoach.) In John Ford's America the white man's burden is a moral obligation—good Christian people are on the side of right, and it's their job to conquer the bloodthirsty natives, no matter how much carnage it takes. Drums Along the Mohawk is just the sort of picture against which a movie like Dances With Wolves rebels; its politics may seem old-fashioned at best and offensive at worst, but it's still an entertaining tale.
We meet our heroes, Gil and Lana Martin, on their wedding day, in the auspicious year of 1776—they leave the comforts of civilized Albany for the wilds of Ohio, and Lana is plucked rudely from her family's bourgeois home to a log cabin built by her husband, with no amenities, and natives, even the friendly ones, rudely barging in and scaring the wits out of her. (Native Americans is now the term of choice, but it probably won't come as a shock that this movie refers to them only and always as Indians.) Can this rich upstate New York girl transform herself into a frontier woman, especially in this time of revolution?
The plot of Drums Along the Mohawk is curiously ambling, and the movie is motored ahead principally by its stars. Though she's listed second on the front of the DVD case, Claudette Colbert, as Lana, gets top billing; she keeps her character from being a spoiled little rich girl, and demonstrates a fearsome colonial mettle. Henry Fonda's Gil is a classically upright American performance from him; he had just played the title role in Young Mr. Lincoln, and the following year he and Ford would team up again for the actor's finest hour, as Tom Joad. Ford never had much of a touch for comedy, and this movie is no exception; the principal bad guy doesn't get much screen time, but his eye patch and his Tory politics are a dead giveaway, and when he, Caldwell (John Carradine), teams up with the crazed Senecas to attack the settlers, it's no surprise. Especially memorable, too, is Edna May Oliver, as a flinty frontier widow with the proverbial heart of gold; she takes a shine to the Martins, though her one remaining goal in life now is to die in the house that her late husband built.
All of the able-bodied men in the Mohawk Valley are packed off to General Washington's army, though Ford never gives us any glorious battle scenes—all we get is the aftermath and the carnage, which is considerable. The director gives such humanity to the white people that his portrait of the natives becomes that much harder to take—with a couple of exceptions, they're liquor-swilling, crazed pyromaniacs, routinely referred to by epithets like "filthy painted heathens." (The few other natives, all of whom have been Christianized, are made the butt of jokes because of their uneasy grasp of English.) So if you're reflexively unable to watch something that's so obviously politically incorrect, you'll want to steer clear; but taken warts and all, it's a pretty kinetic if structurally ungainly piece of filmmaking.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: One of Ford's first color pictures, this one was given a very thorough going-over for its transfer to DVD, as an accompanying restoration comparison demonstrates. Still, the palette in these early color movies wasn't quite worked out yet, and the blues and reds look far more rich and full than the browns and yellows.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The technical limits of '30s filmmaking are more evident here, as both the mono and stereo tracks are pocked with static and buzz.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Extras Review: The aforementioned restoration comparison is very informative—it offers side-by-side clips of a transfer from 1985 with the 2004 restoration, and then compares the latter with the final digital video restoration done for DVD. Though the feature is in color, the original trailer is in black and white; the disc also opens with a thumping, overcut anti-piracy ad, liable to induce headaches in the Fonda and Colbert fan bases.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsFor good and for bad, a vintage John Ford picture, with two strong lead performances, and a fascinating glimpse at the early capacity of Technicolor.
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