Tuesday, September 18, 2007

War Drums

Set among the farmers of frontier America, John Ford’s 1939 Drums Along the Mohawk stars Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert as a farm couple defending home and country from a two-pronged attacks of redcoats and redskins. It’s a robust action picture, a love story, and a rich slice of patriotic nostalgia, filmed in the rosy Technicolor glow of pre-Depression adventure epics, which lends it an agreeable look of storybook illustration. Despite the setting, the Mohawk River Valley of New York, it’s very much a typical Ford western where rugged Americans face off against war-whooping Indians, flintlocks versus tomahawks. Based on a 1936 bestseller by Walter D. Edmonds, it’s a better than average crowd-pleaser whose flag-waving sentiments may have appealed to moviegoers in the run-up to the Second World War, but it seems to have only occasionally inspired its director.

Fonda plays Gilbert Martin, who marries the sweet but pampered Lana, played by Colbert -- a “pretty wife” role that never allows her to be as sharp, funny or alive as she was in It Happened One Night. Gilbert takes Lana to the home he has built for them in the town of Deerfield, which is quite a come-down, as she promptly freaks out at the sight of an Indian, Blue Back (Chief Big Tree), requiring Gil to smack some sense into her. (It was the 1930s. You could do that then.) Blue Back turns out to be a friend of Gil’s -- which is fortunate, as he is a Christian, and apparently the only good Indian in the entire state -- and he is one of Ford’s many examples of obnoxious comic relief. He even offers Gil a hickory stick so he can keep his hysterical wife in line.

The frontier farmers are a regular gang of pals who all been marshalled into into defending the Mohawk territory against the British. Ford surrounded his tough, serious-minded men with a variety of comic characters – drunkards, ne’er do wells, good-natured bums – all of whom are nonetheless from solid American stock and who are at the ready when duty calls – they never shirk their duty.

No sooner do the Martins start making some headway on clearing the land and building their own dream house than marauding Indians -- apparently drafted into the cause by British troops (led by a seedy one-eyed spy played by John Carradine) --arrive to burn it down and drive them off. The couple, self-sufficient to the core, find themselves reduced to nothing, and have to swallow their pride and take jobs as the hired help to the crusty old widow Mrs. McKlennar (played to the hammy hilt by rubber-faced Edna Mae Oliver.)

There’s a fairly ridiculous scene of Fonda being chased on foot by three Indians that goes on for miles and miles; somehow they never quite catch up to him although he’s only a few hundred feet ahead -- it is however beautifully shot at one point , as we see the chase in silhouette against sunset. There are nice shots of Fonda pitching hay against the background of the valley. Also, one of Fonda’s crew is captured by the Indians and placed in a wagon full of hay, which is set on fire; the man’s arms are extended at his sides, so there is kind of a fiery crucifixion in which the man dies like a Ford hero should, laughing deliriously in the face of death

Ford loves feel-good cliches of early American community life. (“It was the custom of neighbors to come from mles around to help a newcomer clear his land,” reads one transitional title card). It’s perfunctory material though, throughout.

This is the DVD of the 2004 restoration, which demonstrates both the highs and lows of the Technicolor process. The colors are vivid, but never sharp or crisp as in later color films, the panoramic views look a little muddy, and the night scenes are often just too damned dark.

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