For a beaten-down film critic as myself, the best thing about attending The New York Film Festival is not to get a jump on feature film releases that will quickly show up in local theaters a few days after their festival premieres, but to savor those obscure, febrile marvels of classic cinema that for whatever reasons (neglect, deterioration, ignorance) have been shuttled aside or locked away in film vaults to make way for the latest De Palma monstrosity, a fawning Las Vegas comic tribute documentary, or the most recent Sylvia Miles comeback film.
The New York Film Festival offered a double bill of savory morsels in this succulent vein, presided over master chef Martin Scorsese and his restoration outfit, The Film Foundation. On the bill-of-fare at The New York Film Festival were two 20th Century Fox three-strip Technicolor sweetmeats -- John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk and John Stahl's Leave Her To Heaven.
Many films shot in Technicolor are sitting in vaults like condemned prisoners, waiting out their time and gradually deteriorating. Drums Along the Mohawk and Leave Her To Heaven have survived such a fate, thanks to the fact that these films are favorites of Scorsese and, as a result, have been rescued from oblivion.
The opening salvo of Scorsese's Technicolor double feature, Drums Along the Mohawk, an early three-strip Technicolor endeavor, was John Ford's first color film and, with cinematographers Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan, he makes the most of it.
Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert star in this outdoor adventure taking place during the American Colonial period, playing a young married couple who try to make a home in New York's Mohawk Valley and end up having to brave bands of marauding Indians and John Carradine with a black eye patch as they struggle to form a nuclear family in a burgeoning frontier community (in upstate New York). As usual, Ford, the supreme purveyor of pictorial grandeur in American film, manages to place his camera in the most effective locations -- the expressive Mohawk Valley landscapes, the interior spaces reflecting the souls of the characters, the blocking of the characters in the frame that silently reflect their emotional involvement with each other.
The colors are rich and pop out at you like paintings in a museum, from Fonda's blue eyes, the lush green and blue outdoor landscapes, the evocative colors of the changing seasons, rustic brown interiors, and the bright orange-yellows of flame and fire. The most interesting shot is a scene in a dark, heavy downpour, the rain falling like silver nitrate bullets, anticipating the climax of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven by a good 50 plus years.
And, of course, the John Ford stock company is out in full force -- Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Spencer Charters -- with Fordian standouts Arthur Shields as the unconventional Reverend Rosenkrantz, who ends up in a state of catatonia after killing a nasty Indian brave, and Francis Ford, as the self sacrificing Joe Boleo, tries to warn the Continental Army but instead is bound and burned on a funeral pyre of hay. Fonda is at his most iconographic, Edna May Oliver is cantankerous, with the only sour note in the proceedings being Claudette Colbert's disinterested performance as Fonda's frontier wife.
Scorsese introduced the film by remarking how in 1939 Ford had made the seminal films Young Mr. Lincoln and Stagecoach and then, as if those weren't enough, Drums Along the Mohawk, which "he just knocked off on his way out of the studio." He recalled having seen the film for the first time in the early 1950s, at the Orpheum Theater in New York, but the print was a badly duped black and white copy -- "but I went with my friends and we were just 10 years old and we didn't care." Having seen the film again later, in Technicolor, Scorsese remarked it was a revelation. It was also a revelation to this beaten down film critic.
Reviewed at the 2007 New York Film Festival.
Now, with cymbals!