I grew up a huge Western fan, so my early admiration of filmmakers Anthony Mann (Winchester’ 73, Bend of the River), John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) and John Ford (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers) was inevitable. It’s with a tinge of embarrassment that director Delmer Daves didn’t enter my narrow minded world well into my forties. I have a lot of catching up to do, but thanks to Warner Archive my mission has started with Daves’ excellent feature Drum Beat.
Since it’s a CinemaScope feature, expect a healthy share of wide vistas and beautiful compositions, and Daves (who also penned the film) gives his story ample room to breathe. Alan Ladd, best known as the sentimental and tough loner from Shane, stars as Johnny Mackay, a brave fighter who’s sent to Oregon to broker a peace deal with Modoc Indian chief Captain Jack (Charles Bronson in a scene stealing performance).
Although Johnny’s family was massacred by Indians, his vengeful nature is behind him, as President Grant (Hayden Rorke) orders Johnny to keep the mission diplomatic. Captain Jack’s motivations are purely centered on warfare and expanding his tribe’s influence over the lands. Marisa Pavan is Toby, the Indian woman in love with Johnny, with Audrey Dalton starring as Nancy, a determined lady who takes over her uncle’s homestead after he’s killed by Indians.
Credit goes to Daves for penning and directing a first rate story that was inspired by the Modoc War of 1872-3. He refuses to pull on sentimental heart strings, but instead delivers a savage picture on how the West was won. Peaceful homesteaders as well as Indians are victims to this conflict, and Mackay understands that unless peace is achieved, both sides will suffer the consequences.
Bronson, whose stoic nature was best served as Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West, does inspired work as Captain Jack, a bellicose leader who will kill anyone in his path. Captain Jack and Mackay also have a history together, and their uneasy friendship culminates into a memorable showdown at an all too active river.
Pavan, who is actress Pier Angeli’s twin sister, is also memorable as the woman who only has eyes for Johnny, even if it threatens her relationship with the tribe. Versatile character actor Elisha Cook Jr. co-stars as a greedy gunrunner whose business relationship with the Modocs ends on a karmic note.
Even the film’s minor characters are given full attention in Daves’ story, thus infusing Drum Beat with a gripping storyline that is a cut above the average B-movie Western. Since Daves has an estimated 50 screenplay credits, crafting a compelling tale is definitely one of his skill sets.
Drum Beat was the first feature produced by Alan Ladd’s Jaguar Productions, and it’s a Western that kept me glued to the screen for 107 minutes. This is a perfect introduction to Delmer Daves’ work, and since his distinguished career stems from his work as a director and screenwriter, it’s a shame that his name is only recognizable to diehard film buffs.
Drum Beat is a Manufactured on Demand DVD, so if you want to order this title, please go to the Warner Archive site.