Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

A Thunder of Drums (MGM, 1961)

 

Not much thunder and I didn’t hear any drums

 

I would say that A Thunder of Drums is a John Ford cavalry western without the John Ford part. There wasn’t any thunder and I heard no drums.

 

 

It’s quite big and glossy, in Metrocolor and CinemaScope, shot by William W Spencer (not really a Western specialist) in handsome Old Tucson and Vasquez Rocks locations. And there were none of the usual studio ‘exteriors’ with back-projection that disfigured so much of MGM’s output.  The picture looks good alright.

 

There’s also an attempt, in the James Warner Bellah script, at a tough and gritty army story, with personality clashes on the wild frontier.

 

There’s music by Harry Sukman (Rio Bravo, The Tin Star, Heller in Pink Tights) and the picture was produced by Robert J Enders (only 2 Westerns, this one and High Noon: The Clock Strikes Again, on TV in 1966).

 

But in the last resort, some of the directing was stodgy and much of the acting wasn’t up to par. Brian Garfield in his guide Western Films said, “Bellah’s acceptable yarn (not his best) is defeated by mediocre direction and awful acting.”

 

Joseph Newman was at the helm, not the world’s most talented or inspired artist as far as film making goes. He made six feature Westerns, the best being The Gunfight at Dodge City and Fort Massacre, both with Joel McCrea, and they were pretty good, but the others weren’t, e.g. James Craig in Northwest Rangers and Alan Ladd in Pony Soldier. He was competent but not much more.

 

Not John Ford

 

Bellah was, as we know, a favorite of John Ford’s, and Bellah’s credits include Ford’s cavalry trilogy, Sergeant Rutledge and Liberty Valance, as well as non-Ford The Command (though that too had sub-Fordian tints) and The Man Behind the Gun. The Wiki entry on him says, “In the early stages of his career, Elmore Leonard modelled his style closely after Bellah’s writing” but I don’t see much evidence of that myself. Maybe. As IMDb also says, “Bellah, an unrepentant misanthrope, [who was] once described by his own son as ‘a fascist, a racist, and a world-class bigot,” saw Native Americans as the “red beast in the night.’” And indeed, in A Thunder of Drums the Indians are the usual nameless savages only there to cause terror and be shot down in droves. In many ways it was still the 1940s in the script. The repeated line in A Thunder of Drums from Fort Apache about apologizing being a sign of weakness shows Bellah trying for a Ford cavalry Western vibe – but not succeeding.

 

Bellah at the typewriter

 

As for the acting, the cast was led by a bearded Richard Boone, a great Western actor without a doubt, and he certainly gave this role plenty, but the character he played, the commanding officer stuck at the rank of captain because of past failures, bitter and angry, is one-dimensional as written and not easy for Boone to do anything with.

 

A bitter and angry comander

 

There were some up-and-coming youngsters, soon to be flavor of the month, such as George Hamilton, second-billed as the new lieutenant, son of a general daddy, who still has a lot to learn and gets off on the wrong foot with Captain Maddocks (Boone), and Richard Chamberlain, in a smaller part as another lieutenant.

 

Up and coming, but in this one not very convincing

 

Chamberlain had a much smaller part

 

And in those days Westerns felt obliged to have a pop singer, perhaps to draw the teen girls in to see what was not, a priori, an attractive genre for them, in this case Duane Eddy, as a guitar-strumming trooper.

 

Duane plays it for the 1870s teeny-boppers

 

Former child star Luana Patten, known for the likes of Rock, Pretty Baby! and, the same year as A Thunder, Go Naked in the World, plays the blonde love interest.

 

Luana little more than decorative (often the case with Bellah women)

 

Unfortunately, none of these actors convinced in their roles.

 

A ‘glossy’ Western with a combination of well-known and experienced Western actors and trendy new ones might have been expected to do well at the box-office but it made a loss of $42,000, according to MGM records. It was, to be honest, vin ordinaire.

 

On the more plus side, we get the excellent Slim Pickens as another trooper, and, the best actor on the set, Arthur O’Connell as the grizzled old Sergeant Rodermill – his death is really quite affecting.

 

O’Connell very good

 

Furthermore, although regular readers (both of them) will know that I am not the world’s greatest fan of Charles Bronson, he was actually pretty good in this as the insalubrious Trooper Hanna. It was a strong character and he handled it pretty well.

 

Chuck better than usual

 

We open with a horrific attack on a settlers’ cabin by Indians (whether they are Comanche or Apache is an open question through most of the film) and a little girl watches the shadows of what is evidently a rape and murder. The now orphan child is traumatized into muteness and when a Cavalry patrol arrives, she is taken to their base, Fort Canby.

 

Troopers Bronson and Pickens find a traumatized girl

 

At the fort we meet the surly martinet Captain Maddocks (Boone), who fumes at the inexperience of Lt McQuade (Hamilton). A girl, Tracey (Patten) has come out from the East to marry her fiancé Lt Gresham (James Douglas, in his only big-screen Western) but it seems that she and Lt McQuade ‘go back’ and he wants to renew the romance, while she is equivocal at best. So love interest/drama, though of a not very interesting kind, is introduced early on.

 

There are some typical scenes of frontier Army life, such as the sale of booze to the soldiers on payday, so that they immediately get drunker than skunks and pass out, being now broke till the next payday, and, naturally, a pop singer playing a guitar. We also get a sub-Fordian dance.

 

But as Erick Maurel said, “Après une heure de bavardage sans grand intérêt, la dernière demi-heure consacrée à l’action n’est guère plus satisfaisante” (after an hour of uninteresting chatter, the last half-hour devoted to action isn’t much more satisfying).

 

Lt Gresham is sent out on patrol but later Capt Maddocks and Lt McQuade will find their brutalized bodies. It’s fairly grim, though we are not into full-on 1960s violence yet. The tone of the picture is pretty 1950s.

 

The fiancé comes to a sticky end

 

The rest of the story concerns how canny and hard-bitten Boone, aided by Hamilton now becoming a good soldier at last, defeat the Apaches (as they turn out to be), with Hamilton bravely holding them off and Boone galloping to the rescue in a last-minute charge, one of the oldest tropes in the genre, going back indeed to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

 

They finally warm to each other (as we knew they would)

 

There’s a rather trite happy ending back at the fort.

 

There is, at least, in this film a laudable attempt to de-romanticize the US Cavalry life, an attempt which prefigured later ‘anti-cavalry’ Westerns. Newman and Bellah clearly tried hard to present the tough reality of frontier outposts in the Indian wars. “There are three things a man can do to relieve the boredom of these lonely one-troop posts,” says Maddocks. “He can drink himself into a straight-jacket; he can get his throat cut chasing squaws; or he can dedicate himself to the bleak monastic life of a soldier and become a great officer.”

 

But sincerely, that’s about all this picture has going for it. Even Raoul Walsh’s last Western, the cavalry yarn A Distant Trumpet (1964), which was pretty weak on the whole, was better than this one.

 

 

 

2 Responses

  1. I agree that it is is far being the best Cavalry western (Did not you write about this sub but essential genre!?) but I am not so highly critical about it. I think its qualities outweigh its flaws and shortcomings you have very well underlined. George Hamilton has never been the best actor and from the same late 1930s born generation, Robert Redford or Warren Beatty or even Patrick Wayne would have made the film much more attractive. And Boone is not unidimensional at all in my opinion.

    1. Fair enough. The picture certainly had its points. Patrick Wayne might indeed have been good casting.
      I haven’t done a retrospective of the cavalry Western but it’s not a bad idea. It was a key theme in the genre.

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