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Drums Along the Mohawk (Blu-ray Review)

30 Sep, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Available at ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Edna May Oliver.

Twilight Time’s latest, concurrently released with Louis Malle’s infrequently shown Alamo Bay, has to rate among the deals of the year if you read the fine print, though just getting a Blu-ray of John Ford’s first feature in color — and not counting war documentaries, he only made three of them up until The Quiet Man — would really be enough. But this TT release goes several extra miles by including Nick Redman’s authoritative documentary Becoming John Ford, which was previously only available on a couple of boxed sets (one very expensive) that chronicled the director’s career at his most harmonious studio (not that Ford ever instigated or enjoyed much harmony on movie lots or locations anywhere).

Among the remarkably few Hollywood films to deal with the Revolutionary War, Drums was Ford’s third in a trio of major achievements released in 1939, though no one (except, perhaps, for ticket buyers who made it the biggest commercial hit of the three) would call it the equal of immediate predecessors Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln — the second of which got the Ford-Henry Fonda ball rolling until their famous falling-out when shooting Mister Roberts. In one of Ford’s interviews from the early ’60s, he suggested that audiences never got very crazy about seeing guys in historical wigs (a feeling I do indeed get whenever I stumble into John Sturges’ The Scarlet Coat). There are, however, mostly conventional male trims in Ford’s portrayal of Tory/Native American mayhem in upstate New York — the last personified by the guy we instantly sense is going to be the standout heavy the second we see him: John Carradine in an eye-patch. But except for Ford stock company perennial Jack Pennick, who was in a visual class all his own, the younger members of the male cast are regular-looking and -acting guys like Fonda and Ward Bond, though some of the older characters do get to indulge their idiosyncrasies. My favorite is Arthur Shields as a preacher who occasionally veers close to the fire-and-brimstone side — though he’s not so rigid that he can’t put in a pulpit plug for a local merchant.

Most eccentric of all is a flinty widow played by Edna May Oliver, the character I most remember from my first viewing of Drums in 1959 at age 12 (a black-and-white print, alas). Oliver got a supporting Oscar nomination here and might have won were it not the same year as Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammy” — so unusual is her characterization. (Thomas Mitchell, meanwhile, took 1939’s supporting actor award for playing the dipso doctor in Stagecoach). Oliver yells a lot when Indians burn her bedroom but generally maintains her steely composure. Settlers are always getting burned out of their homes in scenes that foreshadow Ford’s The Searchers — and there are other shots here and there that bring to mind (or at least my mind) The Quiet Man and The Horse Soldiers.

As Julie Kirgo suggests in the Twilight Time liner notes, this is a movie of superb shots and scenes as opposed to an arcing narrative flow — or such is the movie’s rep and rap. It’s all true enough, at least when compared to Stagecoach and Lincoln, but the print here is so gorgeous that I’ve never enjoyed Drums as much as I did this time around. It’s easily identifiable as an auteur work via its compositional prowess and alcoholically blitzed supporting characters, though co-lead Claudette Colbert never looks too comfortable to me opposite Fonda, who was only two years younger than the actress, though one would guess more. Colbert and Ford apparently didn’t get along, which hardly puts her in an exclusive club.

Ford didn’t get along with studio heads, either, but he had respect for Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck’s filmmaking prowess — at least until they disagreed on the final cut of My Darling Clementine (though Ford made a couple more Fox films after that fallout). After the 1931 death of F.W. Murnau, Ford (with perhaps Frank Borzage) was the star director at the old Fox Film Corporation and more or less came along with he deal when the financially struggling company merged with Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures in 1935. All this corporate history and a lot of personality quirks on both sides get aired in Redman’s terrific documentary (script by Kirgo), which runs a little over 90 minutes and is heavy on accessible academics, including the great Joseph McBride, whose Ford bio is the best, though Scott Eyman wrote a superb one, too. I put it on for a refresher viewing right after Drums, only intending to look at a few minutes in an opening session. Suddenly, it was the wee a.m., because I was really eating it up, as I had on a previous viewing.

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