Blu-ray Review: Drums Along the Mohawk - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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Set in 1776, smack dab in the middle of the American Revolutionary War, Drums Along the Mohawk is an notably placid Western. The John Ford-directed film, shot in color in 1939, meanders along at a nearly casual pace. Gil Martin (Henry Fonda) marries his best gal Lana (Claudette Colbert, well into her 30s at the time—a tad old to play the na├»ve young bride) and the pair moves to the frontier. Gil fights in several battles, mostly against Native Americans siding with the British, but most of the film presents the trials and tribulations of living off the land in Colonial-era central New York.

The fact that it’s Ford’s first color film and the capper of his 1939 trifecta (which also included Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln) makes it a worthy acquisition for fans of classic cinema. Twilight Time recently issued Mohawk on Blu-ray, marking its high definition debut, as a limited edition (only 3,000 copies in total). For added value, Twilight Time has included a 93-minute documentary, Becoming John Ford, making this disc essentially a double-feature.

Drums Along the Mohawk cover (213x280).jpgThe main attraction of Mohawk is the Oscar-nominated cinematography, co-credited to Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan. It’s a gorgeous film just to look at, which is good because the story isn’t exactly riveting. Once Gil and Lana attempt to settle into their cabin (built by Gil himself), Colbert spins off the rails a little with a performance that readily tips into overheated melodrama at times. The most obvious example is when Gil’s Native American friend Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree) invites himself into their home. I don’t blame Lana for freaking out a little given that he’s a stranger and Gil’s not around at first to introduce him. But her incessant screaming is a little much (or then again maybe not, considering the supposedly “good Christian” Blue Back promptly presents Gil with a stick to beat his wife into submission).

Whether or not Gil ever uses the stick, which he’s not above hanging prominently over the fireplace, is anybody’s guess. I’d say it’s unlikely, as he’s portrayed as a supremely (dare I say unrealistically) nice, mild-mannered fellow. He’s all brusque business however when it comes time to abandon their homestead (leaving behind a prized cow) in order to avoid a Native American attack. All the blood, sweat, and tears the couple invested in building the place goes up in smoke as they witness the Native’s torching it. Soon the couple is happily living in a spare room in Mrs. McKlennar’s (Edna May Oliver) home. Oliver was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. While she initially seems like comic relief, the aging widow McKlennar has some moving moments as she and the Martin’s grow fond of each other.

Though the colors aren’t ever quite as vivid as what we’re used to these days, there were sequences that looked so superb I forgot I was watching a 1939 production. The Blu-ray presentation is fantastic, with a clean, sharp picture throughout. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono mix is also on target; simple, but crystal clear and free of distortion. Alfred Newman’s lush score is appropriately balanced with the dialogue and effects.

Drums Along the Mohawk booklet (238x280).jpgThose who appreciate Twilight Time’s inclusion of isolated score tracks on most of their titles will be disappointed. Newman’s score is not presented alone. However, in a departure of their normal licensing of previously issued supplements, we’re treated to an apparently newly recorded audio commentary by film historian (and writer of all Twilight Time liner notes) Julie Kirgo and filmmaker Nick Redman. It’s an imminently listenable track, brimming with information and analysis. It was Redman who directed the included feature-length documentary, Becoming John Ford (2007). The doc is presented in standard definition but does boast a DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack.

Again, as is standard for the boutique label’s releases, Drums Along the Mohawk is a true limited edition. Once the initial pressing of 3,000 copies is sold out, that’s it. For ordering information, visit Screen Archives.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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