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Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) January 13th, 2021

I think we look at storytelling genres the wrong way. Horror isn’t a genre, it’s a feeling, an emotional element used for impact and tone. Mystery isn’t a genre, it’s an essential period of unknowing before any story’s conclusion. Western isn’t a genre, it’s a setting.

Until recently I eschewed Westerns because they seemed like dirty sci-fi to me. Not vulgar, just dirty. People take baths once a month or less and they probably use sulfuric well-water full of bacteria. They have outhouses mere steps away from the kitchen windowsill where delicious apple-berry pies cool. And there’s no running water or antibacterial soap to properly was up before eating. It’s not cute when a filthy western character walks into a kitchen, claps the dust from their chaps, and scoops out a dollop of pie with their cowpoke fingers, it’s fucking gross. No wonder so many people on the Oregon trail died of dysentery. It’s difficult to appreciate how ‘cool’ the Duke is when you’re busy pondering the magnitude of filth under his fingernails. So, I stayed away.

But in the last few years I’ve spent a little time in Nevada and Utah and fell in love with the landscape. It’s beautiful and I fantasize about living there full time. Unfortunately I live in Alaska. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly beautiful up here and leaving the comforting embrace of the Chugach Range would be difficult but my heart wants what it wants. For now I have to be satisfied with living vicariously through the lenses of John Ford, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers (yes, I know the last two aren’t as dedicated to the ‘genre’ as the first but that’s precisely my point, they’re not making ‘Westerns’ they’re making great movies set in the west! Calm down, get to the review.)

Drums Along the Mohawk isn’t a western. Yes there’s horseback riding and shootouts and violent conflicts with indigenous peoples… but it’s set in New York during the American Revolution. So while it possesses many Western trappings (like one of the ‘genre’s’ most celebrated directors) it’s actually more of a frontier war film about American settlers struggling to survive against the ravages of nature and British warfare.

Our protagonists are newlyweds Lana and Gilbert who’ve survived a fire that destroyed their first cabin and must now live in a neighbor’s barn while they rebuild. There’s no shortage of hardships for these two as the war separates them and puts their growing family in harm’s way. But we already know how history shakes out with our heroes surviving to establish a new community at the edge of the newly formed United States of America.

Drums Along the Mohawk is gorgeous. I suspect that wouldn’t be a shock to people more familiar with John Ford’s work than I am, but I suspect Drums Along the Mohawk is the first John Ford film I’ve seen. I look forward to seeing his other notable works especially if they’re as thrilling, beautiful, and humorous as this. Drums Along the Mohawk is epic in scope and beautifully shot on what must’ve been a variety of picturesque Appalachian locations but it’s not Monument Valley or Mesa Verde. It’s not The West.

I have to look for my western fix elsewhere amigos. Somewhere beyond the sunset, past the mighty Colorado lies suspense and mystery in the most beautiful rust-colored country on Earth. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday… we’ll ride again.

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