BluRay/DVD Reviews

DRUM BEAT (WB Archives Collection)

By • Aug 6th, 2014 •

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There’s much to like, and at least as much to dislike, about this ultimately compelling film. Its noble intentions are on the plus side. So are director/screenwriter/co-producer Delmer Daves’ graceful configurations of the new CinemaScope frame. This was a year after the wide-screen anamorphic process hit, and many directors were no more thrilled with it than they were with the advent of sound a quarter-century earlier. But some took to it better than others. Otto Preminger was one of those who felt at ease with the new aspect ratio (RIVER OF NO RETURN), and Daves was another.

The film starts interestingly, with a reticent, uncomfortable Alan Ladd standing outside the White House. Given the odd choice of having four little black kids dancing on the sidewalk (nothing is extraneous in a film frame, even a CinemaScope film frame, so this is telling us something), Ladd asks a guard if it’s easy to see the President. The guard tells him to just walk in. Director Delmer Daves (BROKEN ARROW, 3:10 TO YUMA) wrote the screenplay and I imagine he researched this shocking fact. Can you imagine it being that easy today?

Inside, President Ulysses S. Grant is happy to see him. Ladd is a renowned Indian fighter, and has killed a great many of them (all after his family was slaughtered by Indians). But Grant has a different plan for the modest Ladd. Since he knows the Indians well, including a current war-bent Modoc leader named Captain Jack, his president wants him to go without weapons and try to make peace with the renegade. Ladd has no hopes for a positive result, but respects Grant’s wishes.

Captain Jack is played by a striking, sensual Charles Bronson. He’d been on TV and in film since 1949, but if this was indeed a first major ‘debut’ role (it does appear to be the first time he abandoned his real name – Charles Buchinsky), he’s fully up to it. Ladd, a year after his career-high performance in SHANE, talks so low it seems at times that he’s whispering (in 1948 he played Whispering Smith in the film of the same name). He doesn’t command the screen the way he once did in the George Stevens film, but nonetheless some of his scenes are quite tense, particularly his stand-offs with Bronson, and his innate sense of courage carries him through these encounters. Dublin-born Audrey Dalton is quintessential ‘50s casting. Frankly I preferred her in MR. SARDONICUS. Others in the cast are directed a bit heavy-handedly, as are certain sequences.

What current events were mirrored here, I wonder? Vietnam was heating up, but Eisenhower was warning us to stay out. The aftereffects of the Korean War were being sorted out via Operation Big Switch. Were things like this in Daves’ mind when he wrote the script?

Today the aggression against the Indian tribes, no matter how soft peddled by Grant, can’t help but conjure up Iraq and other foolish moves on our part. There’s a painful sequence where Captain Jack, knowing there will be blood, gets all his warriors up onto a mesa to defend themselves, and proceeds to slaughter the US cavalry who march boldly, idiotically forward, making perfect targets of themselves. Brings to mind The Charge of the Light Brigade, or Masada, with the Indians as the Jews, and the US army as the Romans, except that in this version, there were no suicides – the Americans get their butts kicked.

The Warner Color cinematography of Peverell Marley (HOUSE OF WAX, THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER and THE PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE – all in 3D) is intermittently successful in capturing the film’s palette, if in fact the problems are his fault. There’s nothing wrong with his eye for framing, but I’m assuming he may have chosen different films stocks for indoor and outdoor scenes, as well as for exterior night shooting. Outdoor daytime vistas are marvelous. The colors of 1954 hold. The skylines, broken by mesas, are not the skylines of John Ford. They are not symbolic so much as they are tantalizing, making it clear to us how desirable the Western territory was to settlers, and to the Indians. Interiors are much less lovely – colors seem faded; they coalesce and lean in dull directions, muffled by time and whatever the negative stock choice was for these scenes.

In general the score is functional, but one of the most foolish music cues in film history occurs when Ladd and Bronson finally fight to the death. As they are swept down river, locked in combat, the music sounds like a lilting tune celebrating the coming of Spring. I was stunned.

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