Historical Films on Parade
“A first-rate historical film, as rich atmospherically as it is in action” is a critical assessment several movies will strive to claim in the oncoming rush of quality end-of-year quality theatrical releases, such as Mel Gibson’s and Robert Zemeckis’ respective war sagas Hacksaw Ridge (opening tomorrow) and Allied (November 23), Jeff Nichols’ Loving (also opening tomorrow), Pablo Lerrain’s Jackie (December 9), John Lee Hancock’s The Founder (December 16) and Martin Scorsese's Silence (December 23), to name a few. The above pronouncement was already given by Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times’ movie reviewer, to a memorable and moving John Ford production that opened this day 77 years ago, the thrilling and visually striking Technicolor adaptation of Walter D. Edmonds’ well-regarded American Revolution-set novel Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). Just as the above titles will probe uniquely woven fictional tales and/or biographical portraits based on particular turning points in our national past, Drums Along the Mohawk, adapted for the screen by Lamar Trotti and Sonya Levien, took a novel approach to its depiction of America’s War for Independence, what Nugent considered “the revolution on the frontier, in the backwoods region of New York, where a scattering of farmers, chiefly of German stock, went through four years of Indian raids, of British and Tory pillaging expeditions, with little help from the ‘Yankee’ colonial army, with little sense of their national destiny.” While he was not totally persuaded that the film fully depicted novelist Edmonds’ “constant reminder that this bitter and brutal chapter of the war was not fought by a militantly idealistic citizenry driven to revolution by British tyranny, but by an ill-equipped rabble whose chief concern was the preservation of their farms, the maintenance of civil order,” Nugent did affirm that amid the pictorial grandeur and impeccable Hollywood craft, Ford “has been fortunate…in finding such externals to play his Mohawk people as those which go under the names of Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, Edna May Oliver, Eddie Collins, Arthur Shields, Ward Bond and Roger Imhof.” With regards to historical accuracy, TCM.com essayist Rob Nixon reports: “Although set in western New York, Drums Along the Mohawk was actually shot primarily in Utah, where weather conditions (including relentless rain and constantly changing light) initially caused serious delays and budget overruns….Budget issues were complicated by such factors as the need to cut miles of roads into the 11,000-foot-high location and to construct a large fort and several frontier homes. Props and costumes were not readily available since the producing studio, Fox, had not specialized in historical films on this epic scale before or set in this time period. Instead of reproducing the outmoded flintlock muskets used at the time of the Revolution, 100 of them were located in Ethiopia, purchased and transported to Utah for the production.” Following its national rollout, the film would eventually prove a box-office success for Fox, which already presented several “first-rate historical films” in its docket that golden year of 1939, including Jesse James (Ford’s first Technicolor endeavor), The Rains Came and Stanley and Livingstone. Twilight Time’s gorgeous hi-def Blu-ray of Drums Along the Mohawk, including director Nick Redman and writer Julie Kirgo’s illuminating 93-minute documentary Becoming John Ford as well as their own Audio Commentary on Drums itself to add more savory cinematic history, is available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/25712/DRUMS-ALONG-THE-MOHAWK-1939-FEATURING-BECOMING-JOHN-FORD-2007/).