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NOT Available on DVD: DRUM BEAT

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DRUM BEAT from 1953 starred Alan Ladd and Charles Bronson and was based on a true story about a violent Indian uprising in the 187os. It’s an impressive and exciting outdoor adventure but Hollywood studios were churning out hundreds of westerns in the early 50’s so it’s not too surprising that DRUM BEAT, though so superior to many, hasn’t received its due. The most notable thing about DRUM BEAT is that it provided Charles Bronson with his real break-through role as an actor. Bronson’s scene-stealing performance as an Indian chief received a lot of attention and paved the way for his long and successful career, but DRUM BEAT is NOT available on DVD.

DRUM BEAT was based on a little-known occurrence in 1873 where (for the only time) an American Army General was killed during the wars against the Indians. The Modoc tribe, lead by their chief, Captain Jack (Charles Bronson) is moved from their reservation in California to one in Oregon to share with the Klamath, a tribe with which they have a long-standing feud. General Edward Canby (Warner Anderson), a highly-decorated Civil War vet, attempts to negotiate a peace treaty between the warring tribes but is murdered by Captain Jack. Johnny MacKay (Alan Ladd), a civilian scout and Indian fighter, is hired by President Grant (Hayden Rorke) to find Captain Jack and bring him to justice for the murder. MacKay makes a side trip to escort a damsel-in-distress (Audrey Dalton) home after her uncle is killed by the Modocs, then tracks down Captain Jack and DRUM BEAT climaxes as the two battle in hand-to-hand combat on a rocky mountainside and into the sweeping current of a river.

DRUM BEAT was filmed in Northern Arizona’s Coconino National Forest and the skirmishes between the retreating Indians, perched atop looming, un-approachable cliffs, and the pursuing cavalry out to avenge the killing of their general make are exciting. DRUM BEAT was one of the earlier films to show Indian life in an authentic way instead portraying them simply as bloodthirsty savages. Captain Jack is indeed ruthless and barbaric (and looks cool wearing the blue army coat with its medals that he steals off a murdered army colonel) but he’s also presented as proud and magnificent, fighting in all sincerity to retain the lands his ancestors had ruled for centuries. Writer and Director Delmer Daves had spent much of his youth living on reservations with Hopi and Navajo Indians and his westerns such as BROKEN ARROW (1950) and WHITE FEATHER (1955 ) were notable for their sympathetic portrayals of Indians. Many of the extras in DRUM BEAT were played by native Indians (though the leads are played by white actors and the Modoc language is, like the Indian languages in most westerns, rendered into a sort of poetic English) and it’s nice to see an older film with a balanced portrayal of Indians without going to the politically correct extremes necessary in the westerns of today.

After the enormous success of SHANE a year earlier, Alan Ladd formed his own production company, Jaguar Productions. DRUM BEAT was its first film and it was given a healthy budget with outstanding color cinemascope location photography by J. Peverell Marley, an unusual musical score by Victor Young, and a strong supporting cast. Elisha Cook, Jr. is appropriately squirrelly as the shady trader who sells Winchesters to the Modocs and Marisa Pavan is memorable as an ill-fated Modoc squaw who falls in love with Mr. Ladd. DRUM BEAT was an Alan Ladd Western but the actor who made the biggest impression was Charles Bronson and the critics singled out his performance. The ‘New York Times’ noted “Charles Bronson is probably the most muscular Indian ever to have brandished a rifle before a camera” and Peter Baker wrote in ‘Films and Filming': “(Alan Ladd’s) performance is dwarfed by that of Charles Bronson as Captain Jack”. Prior to DRUM BEAT Bronson had performed under his birth name, Charles Buchinsky, but his agent worried that sounded too Russian (Bronson’s parents were Lithuanian immigrants) during the entertainment industry’s blacklisting of Communist associates and was looking to change it. Legend has it they were discussing possible new names while driving on Bronson Avenue in L.A., looked up at the “Bronson Gate” sign at Paramount Studios, and a star was rechristened. It’s startling how menacing Bronson’s Captain Jack seems watching DRUM BEAT today. I think part of it is that he looks so much bigger than Alan Ladd. Bronson was not a tall man at 5′ 8″ but Alan Ladd was four inches shorter than that so Bronson seemed to tower over him, something he did not to his costars later in his career. In the 1970’s, after Bronson had become a global superstar, DRUM BEAT was reissued in some countries under the title CAPTAIN JACK with Bronson’s name on top. Bronson’s role in DRUM BEAT was central and he dominated the film, but he was neither shown nor mentioned on the film’s poster or ad campaign. In his book ‘The Films of Charles Bronson’ author Jerry Vermilye theorizes this may have been due to jealousy; “One imagines that perhaps executive producer Alan Ladd did not fully appreciate Bronson’s scene-stealing talents or the generous amount of close-ups allowed his thespian adversary by the movie’s suitably impressed director”(Bronson did show up on the wonderful cover of the Dell Comic-Book tie-in). DRUM BEAT is a very tough movie to track down and hasn’t played on cable in many years. It was released very briefly on VHS on the Magnetic Video label way back in 1979 (!) but I’ve been collecting Bronson movies for decades and have never been able to locate a copy (but I still have my VHS I taped off channel 11 in the mid-80’s). Hopefully DRUM BEAT will be released on DVD soon and we can all come face-to-face with Captain Jack!

1 Comment

  1. Randy Bone

    June 17, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    FYI: "Indians" are from India. The people that you stole the USA from are called "Indigenous People".

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