DRUM BEAT, written & directed by Delmer Daves, puts somnolent Alan Ladd to task trying to bring a peace settlement finish to the Modoc War in the far West of the early 1870s. Ladd’s production company Jaguar handled the $1,100,000 fact-with-fiction actioner, which turned a tidy profit for the brothers Warner, grossing $8,600,000, 32nd place in a year loaded with genre entries. *
Relations between white settlers in southern Oregon and the Modoc tribe break down when the extra- aggressive leader called Captain Jack (Kintpuash, 1837-1873) attacks at will. Using a natural rock formation as a fortress, Jack frustrates the Army’s attempts to subdue his band. President Grant sends Indian fighter ‘Johnny McKay’ (Ladd) to act as peace commissioner, but Captain Jack (Charles Bronson) isn’t having it. “Many blue-coat soldiers will die”—and a number of stuntmen will likely get pretty bruised up doing painful falls onto rocks and tumbling down stream chutes.
The trite script sticks to the basic facts, with a good deal of expected finessing to toss in romance at intervals so little boys can run to the snack bar when Ladd and Audrey Dalton gaze at each other trying to see who can look more placid. Ladd’s so bland here they could have called it “Numb Beat”. Hard not to grimace/grin/gag when Alan tells Charles “We could have saved a lot of lives Jack, if you hadn’t of grabbed country that wasn’t yours.” Remember that when you find a new continent.
Bronson, his coal-mining physique looking sufficient to break the star in half, tears into the part of Captain Jack with ferocious relish: he’s backed by the well-practiced hate-glares of Rodolfo Acosta, Frank de Kova and Perry Lopez. The more peace-inclined Modocs are led by Marisa Pavan and Anthony Caruso. The beautiful and gifted Pavan, 21, adds some warmth to proceedings. **
The action scenes are decent, and it certainly looks good, though the striking location filming around Sedona, Arizona looks nothing like the actual Modoc War locales in southern Oregon and Northern California.
Yeoman supporting work comes from Robert Keith, Warner Anderson, Elisha Cook Jr. (sneaky trader with a limited life expectancy), Richard Gaines (pushy preacher), Hayden Rorke (President Grant, being Presidential, Isabel Jewell (as ‘Lily White’–‘Lily White’?), Frank Ferguson, Willis Bouchley, Peter Hansen, James Griffith, Denver Pyle, and Strother Martin (in there somewhere). 111 minutes.
* With scant degrees of believability, let alone historical fidelity or cultural accuracy, “Indian fighting” movies got an outsized amount of play in 1954 via Apache, Garden Of Evil, The Command, The Siege At Red River, Taza Son Of Cochise, The Yellow Tomahawk (Rita Moreno is ‘Honey Bear’), Saskatchewan, River Of No Return, They Rode West, and Drums Across The River (more drums).
Ladd, 40, made the mistake of following Shane with mostly sub-par matinee fodder: in ’54 he collected checks for slack duty in Hell Below Zero, Saskatchewan and The Black Knight. 32 year-old Bronson, freshly billed by that name (having used his given Buchinsky for his first several years in the biz),was also on view in the hits Vera Cruz and Apache. Like Captain Jack, his time to make people sit up and take notice of how to exact vengeance would come, by and by.
** Delicate Italian beauty Marisa Pavan joined the era’s relay-race of “ethnic-or-close-enough-with-makeup” actresses who played usually-doomed Native American maidens in the 50s—Debra Paget, Anne Bancroft, Donna Reed, Rita Moreno, Elsa Martinelli….the real-life Modoc woman played by Pavan was Toby “Winema” Riddle, born Nannookdoowah (“strange child,”), who lived from 1848 to 1920. She received a military pension for her role in the peace talks. The troublesome Captain Jack was her cousin. His band of 53 warriors held off 3,000 soldiers before he finally capitulated.