Think of cavalry westerns, or rather, think of the best cavalry westerns and one name tends to spring to mind – John Ford. The famous trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) forms an integral part of Ford’s building up and subsequent deconstruction of the myth of the west. It’s Ford, and Wayne of course, that we think of as being at the heart of their success. While this is entirely justified, there is, however, another figure who had an influence on the shaping of these films – the author of the source material, James Warner Bellah. Aside from the trilogy, his work also provided the inspiration for A Thunder of Drums (1961), a far less celebrated movie. I’m not going to try to argue here that this is a film deserving of the kind of acclaim accorded to Ford’s work, but it does warrant a little more attention than it ordinarily receives.
The story takes place in and around Fort Canby, one of those isolated and undermanned outposts on the extremities of the frontier. It opens in hard-hitting and startling fashion with an Indian raid on a homestead, the full horror of which is reflected in the terrified eyes of a child witness and in the grotesque shadows playing across the ceiling. When the awful aftermath is discovered by a passing cavalry troop the sour and downbeat tone is further emphasised by the fact that these men are bringing their own dead back home. So, with their faces already covered to counter the stench of their current cargo, the troops set about the grim task of burying the victims. From this point on the threat of imminent violence never really slackens, although the action moves into the confines of the fort and remains there until the last half hour. The uncompromising beginning serves to set up the brutal realities facing the fort’s commander, Captain Maddocks (Richard Boone), a man whose past has condemned him to a life of thankless soldiering. With the arrival of a green young officer, Lieutenant McQuade (George Hamilton), we start to get hints that something dark, some error made years before, means that Maddocks is doomed to remain at his present rank until retirement or death release him. And so this western version of the ancient mariner has the task of teaching McQuade the skills necessary for surviving on the frontier and becoming a proper professional soldier. In the process, we get to see (as in Ford’s trilogy) the minutiae of life at one of these half-forgotten postings. Despite Maddocks’ bristly and abrasive style keeping things ticking over, the mid-section of the movie gets itself bogged down in a pretty tedious love triangle involving McQuade and the fiancée of another young lieutenant. What rescues the picture is the last half hour. The troops move out in the open to avenge a massacre and hunt down the hostiles who have been harrying them. The cat-and-mouse pursuit leads to a well-staged climactic battle that ensures the whole thing ends on a high note.
Joseph M Newman was no auteur; he was, however, a versatile professional, the type Hollywood depended on to make good, tight movies. Throughout the 1950s he made a succession of films that, though largely forgotten these days, included some highly entertaining and capable stuff. In this one, his best work is at the beginning and at the end of the picture – a little like the situation with Escape from Fort Bravo, where the strong opening and close bookend a flabby middle. The climax is well handled as an action set piece, especially the Apache ambush tactics and their sudden appearance like spirits conjured out of the ether. Besides this, the greatest saving grace is the central performance of Richard Boone. I thought he was ideally cast as the grizzled officer, ageing and passed over for the promotion his experience and talent merits yet not succumbing to the corrosive bitterness you might reasonably expect him to feel. He had the necessary grit, and a kind of weary resignation, to deliver his memorable dialogue and lend it the weight it deserved – towards the end, he even gets to put his own spin on the Duke’s old line about never apologising as it’s a sign of weakness. In fact, there’s a lot in Boone’s performance that recalls James Warner Bellah’s other cavalry journeymen. In contrast, George Hamilton’s portrayal of McQuade is problematic and represents a major weakness. Firstly, Hamilton just doesn’t look right; there’s too much Hollywood polish and smoothness about him. What’s more, he just didn’t have the acting chops to either compete when sharing the screen with Boone or to carry off the pivotal role that was so vital in shoring up that sagging mid-section. Similarly, the lightweight and not especially convincing work of Luana Patten (as Hamilton’s love interest) and Richard Chamberlain fails to add much to the film. Still, there are good supporting turns to help paper over the cracks. Charles Bronson has a medium-sized part as a devious and dirty-minded trooper who comes good in the end, Arthur O’Connell is entertaining enough in the role of the top sergeant that Victor McLaglen played for Ford, although Slim Pickens’ talents are basically wasted.
A Thunder of Drums is available as an MOD disc in the US. However, as an alternative, there’s a perfectly acceptable release to be had in Spain. Llamentol/Paycom have presented the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is generally quite pleasing. There is a little softness in the image but it’s clean enough and the colours are nice and strong. There are no extra features offered, but the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be switched off via the setup menu. I found it interesting to see situations that Ford so skilfully presented taken on by someone else. A Thunder of Drums has none of the artistry or poetry of the old master himself, but it’s a fair enough movie all the same. Considering the inadequacies of some of the performances around him, it’s very much to Richard Boone’s credit that he was able to drive the film as much as he did. I feel that the presence of Boone, and Newman’s handling of the action and exteriors earn this at least a qualified recommendation.