A Thunder of Drums (1961)
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A Thunder of Drums is directed by Joseph Newman and written by James Warner Bellah. It stars Richard Boone, George Hamilton, Luana Pattern, Arthur O'Connell, Charles Bronson, Richard Chamberlain, Duane Eddy and Slim Pickens. Out of MGM it's filmed on location at Old Tuscon & Sabino Canyon in Arizona, and also at Vasquez Rocks, California. It's filmed in CinemaScope and Metrocolor, with cinematography by William W. Spencer and music scored by Harry Sukman.
"There are three things a man can do to relieve the boredom of these lonely one troop posts: 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."
It's proved to be a divisive film amongst Western aficionados, and it's not hard to understand why. The film begins with a pre credit sequence of suggested savagery, a real attention grabber, then the credits role and the colour and vistas open up the story. From here we are placed into the lonely and fretful life at a cavalry fort in the Southwest. The company consists of tough grizzled Captain Maddocks (Boone) who carries around a burden from his past, his ire further inflamed by the arrival of greenhorn Lt. Curtis McQuade (Hamilton). He needs experienced men, not fresh faced kids, and McQuade isn't helping himself by being involved in a love triangle with Lt. Thomas Gresham's (James Douglas) lady, Tracey Hamilton (Patten). This coupled with the threat imposed by the Indians puts strain on all involved at Fort Canby. And there's the crux of the matter, the film is more interested with character dynamics than breaking out into an action packed B ranked Western.
Newcomers to the film should prepare for a talky picture, but it is a very good talky picture. Sure there's action, including a well staged battle in the final quarter (check out those Apache suddenly appearing from the rocks like ghosts!), but this is a film that is being propelled by dialogue, well written dialogue. There is no point in saying that it's well cast because it isn't, Boone is immense and intense and gets the best dialogue of all, but Hamilton is miscast and Patten totally unconvincing. Pickens is hardly in it and Bronson has a character that could be any number of things; someone who it's hard to know if we should dislike or cheer on. While Chamberlain and Eddy are in it to look nice and play the banjo respectively. Yet with the photography suitably keeping the landscape arid and harsh, and the mood around the base one of impending death or boredom (even the levity of a drunken sequence only enforces what little joy is around), the film has much going for it by way of psychology.
It's no "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" of course, and its problems are evident, but it does have merits, and if for nothing else it deserves a look for Boone's excellent performance. 7/10
This is a taut,fast moving story that benefits from a tight script and sound direction. George Hamilton portrays McQuade and at this point in his career, he was still trying to develop as an actor. The movie belongs to Richard Boone, however. He is is ideally cast as Captain Stephen Maddocks and brings a gruff, world weary dignity to the role and he is the main reason to watch the film. Arthur O'Connell is very good as the crusty Sgt. Rodermill who see's his principle duty as trying to keep his men as safe as possible and has little patience with McQuades constant griping. Charles Bronson has a key role and Richard Chamberlain, Slim Pickens, and James Douglas are also in the cast. Luana Patten is unfortunately forgettable in the female lead and her portrayal lacks conviction.Singer Duane Eddy has a role but the less said about him the better.
The script attempts to convey the boredom and lack of social stimulation at the desolate army post which leads to gossip, drinking, and personality conflict that can be deadly if they affect an officers judgment in the field.There are a few too many coincidences in the plot which weaken the story.
A Thunder of Drums is a tight, well drawn out western action thriller that will hold your interest. Richard Boone's superb performance alone makes it worth a watch.
This lurid, routine programmer, would be entirely forgettable, except for two extraordinary performances. Richard Boone portrays the Cavalry Commander, with the kind dignity, sensitivity and intensity which only Richard Boone could give. Charles Bronson plays a dirty minded, foul mouthed, but surprisingly noble corporal. For these two performances alone, see the movie.
George Hamilton and Luana Patten of the MGM stock company join Richard Boone in this great tough western. Richard Chamberlain has a small pivotal role but soon would become very famous as Dr. Kildare and reap in more fan mail per week -15,000 letters-than Clark Gable did at his peak at MGM! Richard Chamberlain for a few years was MGM's biggest star.
See this movie and enjoy a scenic western with a fine cast.
Richard Boone is one bitter commander of a forgotten frontier outpost in post Civil War Texas and has George Hamilton a new young lieutenant from the east assigned when he wanted someone with a little frontier experience. But there seems to be more than that in his hostility toward Hamilton.
As for Hamilton he doesn't help his own cause by immediately taking up with Luana Patten who is the fiancé of James Douglas another lieutenant on the post. Hamilton has history with Patten and he's looking to write a few new chapters.
But in the last 45 minutes of the film it's all cavalry business as Boone seeks to destroy a band of hostiles in the area and try to make sure the right tribe is blamed for some recent raids. It's a bitter school for his young officers Hamilton, Douglas and Richard Chamberlain.
A Thunder Of Drums is based on a story from western writer James Warner Bellah who was the source of the famous John Ford classic cavalry western Fort Apache. Some similarities in some of the characters are present here. They're not romanticized though in the way John Ford would do.
Such people as Arthur O'Connell as the first sergeant and troopers Slim Pickens and Charles Bronson have some small parts. Bronson who does not last long as Hamilton's orderly tries to tempt him in small ways. Definitely he's not a John Ford type character.
A Thunder Of Drums is a gritty western with good performances from the ensemble cast.
One of its chief virtues is the excellent job it does of capturing the day to day flavor of life in a remote cavalry outpost in 1870s southwest. The military manners, habits, and routines are portrayed with convincing detail. The class stratification between enlisted men and officers is utterly real. An early scene with dead soldiers being transported on horseback is played to grim, nauseating effect, with enlisted men displaying hardened indifference and black humor about the situation. All of this gives the film some weight and veracity.
On the other hand, it suffers from generic Hollywood artificiality, relying unthinkingly on shoot 'em up conventions of faceless Indians, and sporting a formulaic romantic triangle subplot. Another major problem is George Hamilton's performance. The character he plays is not particularly sympathetic or likable, and he does nothing to bring depth to it. He's unappealingly flat and cocky. A better actor in this key role would've gone a long way toward breathing some life into the film, especially in its flabby, tedious midsection.
But the real reason to watch this film is Richard Boone. I've liked him in just about everything I've seen him in, but here he is completely riveting. He plays the tough, smart, experienced commander of the undermanned outpost. He's a lonely man, who feels keenly the burden of his job. Late in the film there's a scene where he discovers a scene of carnage, with a number of his men dead, and his controlled rage is very moving. He brings the only real gravitas and feeling to the movie, effectively communicating the weight of life & death decisions and consequences. He's absolutely terrific.
Richard Boone plays the grizzled captain of a remote fort in the middle of nowhere. He has little to do other than snarl at the young lieutenants and lament over that lost promotion. Pretty boy George Hamilton is woefully miscast as the new officer on the block. And speaking of miscasting, Arthur O'Connell as the top sergeant is a long way from "Picnic".
Charles Bronson appears as one of the soldiers who is either supposed to be comic relief or a slimey peeping Tom, we're never quite sure. The fight between Bronson and Hamilton is laughable considering the outcome.
Others in the cast include the bland Luana Patten as the heroine, a young Richard Chamberlain as one of the officers and veteran Slim Pickens who was hardly seen after the opening sequence. And yes, not to forget Duane Eddy as a guitar strumming private. The best that can be said about Eddy is that as an actor he makes a fine musician.
Most of the first 2/3 of the picture consists of the Boone character barking at his subordinates. The final third of the film contains most of the action and manages to salvage the picture.
I think that for this film could have done with less talk and more action.
The cavalry/Indians structure is the peg on which a thoughtful narrative has been hung; even the killing scenes avoid the some of current excesses, and there are hints that the Indians have their own culture which the cavalry officers learn to recognise - and exploit. The inferior technology of the Indians is clearly a factor in their defeat.
It will be a shocking day when the US Cavalry meet an indigenous population which is tactically and technologically their equal, won't it?
He discovers that his former love, Luana Patton, is about to marry another officer. There are intrigues, involving Hamilton's making out with Patton behind her fiancé's back, and an attempt at blackmail by the uncouth Private Charles Bronson. Others in this pretty good cast include Arthur O'Connell, Slim Pickens, a young Richard Chamberlain, and Casey Tibbs, who may need Googling by those who have never heard of rodeos.
There's a good deal of talk, interrupted by action episodes of some interest, and the dialog has the ring of authenticity. A cavalry patrol discovers two women raped and butchered by Indians, and an officer gives the order for "three married men" to dress the women for burial. When the three dismount they are ordered to hand the reins of their horses to the man to the right of them. That's a nicely observed detail. So is the fact that an unpleasant odor accompanies the transport of four dead bodies.
Richard Boone, as the commanding officer, knows his business but he's stern and distant too. Nobody really gets close to him without being addressed as "Mister" and formally reprimanded for some minor infraction. Is this beginning to sound a little familiar? One of the sayings attributed to Boone is "never apologize, it's a sign of weakness." Honest.
The similarities stem from the fact that the story was written by James Warner Bellah, a pulp writer who also produced the stories for John Ford's "Fort Apache," "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," and "Rio Grande." James Warner Bellah was a neat writer, with a good deal of military experience behind him. His weakness as a writer was Manicheanism. The white cavalry, whatever its internal conflicts, is superior in every respect to the treacherous and faceless American Indians. It's really a retrograde assumption and has nothing to do with political correctness. The guy was a talented racist. On top of that, the officer corps is superior to the enlisted soldiers who live only to collect their pay and immediately get drunk and pass out.
It wouldn't have taken much skill to turn this story into an involving saga of life in a cavalry outpost, with all its tribulations and its little rewards, to show some affection for the community. John Ford was able to do it -- three times. But director Joseph M. Newman opts to forget about a balanced, adult approach and hew to Bellah's dry and severe outline. It's all rather carelessly executed. All the officers except Boone have carefully styled and gelled hair. George Hamilton removes his cavalry hat and his hair is STILL flawlessly laid out across his scalp!
The performances are all professional and the basic plot is interesting. It's too bad that so little imagination was invested in its execution. The absence of poetry is pretty nearly startling. What we wind up with is a talky picture about people we don't really care much about.