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Produced by Val Lewton, Apache Drums is directed by Hugo Fregonese and adapted for the screen by David Chandler from the book "Stand at Spanish Boot" written by Harry Brown. It stars Stephen McNally, Coleen Gray, Willard Parker and Arthur Shields. Music is by Hans J. Salter and cinematography is courtesy of Charles P. Boyle. It was shot on location at Red Rock Canyon State Park, California & it's a Technicolor production. Plot sees McNally as notorious gambler Sam Leeds, who after shooting a man in self defence, is forced to leave the town of Spanish Boot. However, outside of town Sam happens across a terrible scene that forces him back into town to warn the folk of an impending attack by the Mescalero Apaches.
The name Val Lewton is synonymous with atmospheric horror, the likes of Cat People, The Body Snatcher, I Walked With a Zombie and Bedlam, have carried the brooding Lewton production stamp. For this, his last film before he sadly passed away, we find him entering the realm of the Western. An odd coupling without doubt, yet as odd as that seems, the oddest thing of all is that the film manages to rise above its budget restrictions and come out just about on top. Working with his director, Fregonese (The Raid), Lewton has produced a final movie that whilst not oozing those eerie atmospherics he's known for, does have enough about it to make it of interest to Lewton completists.
Plot and narrative are simple, where on the surface it appears to be a run of the mill Western where the Indians are the bad guys, and the white man stand up to repel them. Yet to dismiss this as solely being formula fodder is unfair, for it has interesting characters, plenty of tension, a grand piece of action and a couple of genuinely haunting images. There's also some smarts in the writing, where racism and ethical principals are scrutinised. While the work involved for the final third of the film, as our group are holed up in a church awaiting Apache incursion, is of a very high standard. Here Fregonese and camera never leaves the room, as the town burns and the Apache chant and bang the drums, we along with the characters are left to our own imaginations, awaiting a savage death in semi darkness. It's a fine claustrophobic set up that's executed admirably. So why isn't the film better known and regarded, then?
To get to the good stuff you have to suffer the bad, quite a bit of bad in fact. Running at only 75 minutes the film just about gets away with its drawn out periods of chatter, much of which is mundane; especially where the love triangle is concerned. And the acting ranges from the effective: McNally (Winchester '73/ Criss Cross) & Gray (Red River/Nightmare Alley) to the solid-Shields (The Quiet Man/She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), but away from those three it's pretty wooden fare. Problems also exist with the colour, with low budget comes very basic Technicolor lensing, Red Rock Canyon is reduced to being a dull observer on proceedings and the fiery flames during the finale lack colourful snap. There's also the bizarre use of the song "Men of Harlech". Zulu aficionados (and I'm one of them) know the song well, and the use here in Apache Drums is the same as in Cy Endfield's film, only here it's performed in native Welsh; with the actors dubbed! It's a poor fit all round. History tells us, tho, that the defenders of Rorke's Drift did not sing the song, so it's a distinct possibility that the film Zulu owes a debt of gratitude to Apache Drums. Thank you Lewton and Co.
Good and bad every where you look in the film, but the final third swings it well above average in my book. A generous 7/10 rating to my fellow Western movie fans, 6/10 to the casual Sunday afternoon lounge lizard.
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