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A Thunder of Drums

A Thunder of Drums(1961)

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A Thunder of Drums (1961)

The story of a newly commissioned cavalry officer who clashes with his commanding officer at an isolated outpost, A Thunder of Drums (1961) was made during a time when the Western was no longer attracting younger audiences. That's one reason MGM decided to cast George Hamilton in the lead along with Richard Chamberlain (in his screen debut), Luana Patten and guitarist Duane Eddy in supporting roles. However, the real cast member to watch is Charles Bronson, playing a rowdy soldier with an overt fondness for booze and women. For years, Bronson had been typecast as villains or roughnecks but all that began to change after his performance as one of The Magnificent Seven, which was released the previous year. With his athletic build and tight-lipped intensity, Bronson carved out his own niche as an action hero in the coming years and A Thunder of Drums was an excellent early showcase for his burgeoning talents.

Aside from Bronson, A Thunder of Drums is also notable for the involvement of James Warner Bellah, a controversial author who made a name for himself by writing a series of pulp magazine stories about the U.S. Cavalry. Famed director John Ford took early notice of Bellah, adapting many of his cavalry stories printed in The Saturday Evening Post for his informal "Cavalry Trilogy," Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950) and later Sergeant Rutledge (1960). Bellah, an unrepentant misanthrope 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." In most of his films adapted from Bellah stories, Ford countered this contemptuous viewpoint by granting Indians a sense of dignity and humanity. In Fort Apache, for example, the Indians are not the villainous, mysterious "Other," but the victims of government-sanctioned scoundrels. Despite their racial disagreements, Ford and Bellah agreed on one thing: the valor and pride of the military. The cavalry was basically honorable and uncomplicated by psychological neuroses or social bugaboos.

In A Thunder of Drums, Bellah's cavalry unit is still beset by a savage, invisible "Other," but this time the enemy is a war-making Apache tribe. Unlike Ford's pictures, with the exception of Sergeant Rutledge, where racial inequalities were indeed an obvious problem for the military, the cavalry in A Thunder of Drums is not as harmonious as the units in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Rio Grande; there is discord among the upper echelons of command as well as the lower ranks. Even more obvious is the low morale among the troops. While Ford's troops often depart or return to their outposts amidst a stirring anthem, the cavalry in A Thunder of Drums are more likely to return from their missions in a defeated manner. The film's unsentimental tone is underscored by the cavalry's hard-nosed leader (Richard Boone) when he claims the best soldiers are bachelors, since they have to mourn only their own deaths. Questions of the military's authority are also raised when George Hamilton's junior officer is seemingly unable to provide true leadership in crisis situations, prompting the central conflict between Hamilton and Boone. And in the very first scene, that of a house being invaded, both literally and sexually, by marauding Indians, we're given the sense that John Ford's cavalry is no longer able to protect everyone from harm on the vast frontier. The sanctity and security of the next generation is left in question as a little girl who witnesses the savage attack is left a traumatized mute.

In some ways, the questioning of military might contextualizes A Thunder of Drums as a pre-Vietnam Western, simmering with the social unrest of the 1960s. But that may be assigning too much importance to it. The real enjoyment here is seeing rising stars like Bronson interact with Western veterans like Richard Boone (star of TV's Have Gun, Will Travel) and Slim Pickens. And let's not forget the novelty of seeing rock 'n' roller Duane Eddy, who invented the 'twangy' guitar sound in instrumentals like "Rebel Rouser," as a horse soldier, crooning songs like "Water from a Bad Well" and "The Ballad of Camden Yates."

Producer: Robert Enders
Director: Joseph Newman
Screenplay: James Warner Bellah
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Gabriel Scognamillo
Cinematography: William W. Spencer
Editing: Ferris Webster
Music: Harry Sukman
Cast: Richard Boone (Capt. Stephen Maddocks), George Hamilton (Lt. Curtis McQuade), Luana Patten (Tracey Hamilton), Arthur O'Connell (Sgt. Rodermill), Charles Bronson (Trooper Hanna), Richard Chamberlain (Lt. Porter), James Douglas (Lt. Gresham), Duane Eddy (Trooper Eddy), Slim Pickens (Trooper Erschick).
C-97m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Scott McGee

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