A Thunder of Drums


Think of cavalry westerns, or rather, think of the best cavalry westerns and one name tends to spring to mind – John Ford. The famous trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) forms an integral part of Ford’s building up and subsequent deconstruction of the myth of the west. It’s Ford, and Wayne of course, that we think of as being at the heart of their success. While this is entirely justified, there is, however, another figure who had an influence on the shaping of these films – the author of the source material, James Warner Bellah. Aside from the trilogy, his work also provided the inspiration for A Thunder of Drums (1961), a far less celebrated movie. I’m not going to try to argue here that this is a film deserving of the kind of acclaim accorded to Ford’s work, but it does warrant a little more attention than it ordinarily receives.

The story takes place in and around Fort Canby, one of those isolated and undermanned outposts on the extremities of the frontier. It opens in hard-hitting and startling fashion with an Indian raid on a homestead, the full horror of which is reflected in the terrified eyes of a child witness and in the grotesque shadows playing across the ceiling. When the awful aftermath is discovered by a passing cavalry troop the sour and downbeat tone is further emphasised by the fact that these men are bringing their own dead back home. So, with their faces already covered to counter the stench of their current cargo, the troops set about the grim task of burying the victims. From this point on the threat of imminent violence never really slackens, although the action moves into the confines of the fort and remains there until the last half hour. The uncompromising beginning serves to set up the brutal realities facing the fort’s commander, Captain Maddocks (Richard Boone), a man whose past has condemned him to a life of thankless soldiering. With the arrival of a green young officer, Lieutenant McQuade (George Hamilton), we start to get hints that something dark, some error made years before, means that Maddocks is doomed to remain at his present rank until retirement or death release him. And so this western version of the ancient mariner has the task of teaching McQuade the skills necessary for surviving on the frontier and becoming a proper professional soldier. In the process, we get to see (as in Ford’s trilogy) the minutiae of life at one of these half-forgotten postings. Despite Maddocks’ bristly and abrasive style keeping things ticking over, the mid-section of the movie gets itself bogged down in a pretty tedious love triangle involving McQuade and the fiancée of another young lieutenant. What rescues the picture is the last half hour. The troops move out in the open to avenge a massacre and hunt down the hostiles who have been harrying them. The cat-and-mouse pursuit leads to a well-staged climactic battle that ensures the whole thing ends on a high note.


Joseph M Newman was no auteur; he was, however, a versatile professional, the type Hollywood depended on to make good, tight movies. Throughout the 1950s he made a succession of films that, though largely forgotten these days, included some highly entertaining and capable stuff. In this one, his best work is at the beginning and at the end of the picture – a little like the situation with Escape from Fort Bravo, where the strong opening and close bookend a flabby middle. The climax is well handled as an action set piece, especially the Apache ambush tactics and their sudden appearance like spirits conjured out of the ether. Besides this, the greatest saving grace is the central performance of Richard Boone. I thought he was ideally cast as the grizzled officer, ageing and passed over for the promotion his experience and talent merits yet not succumbing to the corrosive bitterness you might reasonably expect him to feel. He had the necessary grit, and a kind of weary resignation, to deliver his memorable dialogue  and lend it the weight it deserved – towards the end, he even gets to put his own spin on the Duke’s old line about never apologising as it’s a sign of weakness. In fact, there’s a lot in Boone’s performance that recalls James Warner Bellah’s other cavalry journeymen. In contrast, George Hamilton’s portrayal of McQuade is problematic and represents a major weakness. Firstly, Hamilton just doesn’t look right; there’s too much Hollywood polish and smoothness about him. What’s more, he just didn’t have the acting chops to either compete when sharing the screen with Boone or to carry off the pivotal role that was so vital in shoring up that sagging mid-section. Similarly, the lightweight and not especially convincing work of Luana Patten (as Hamilton’s love interest) and Richard Chamberlain fails to add much to the film. Still, there are good supporting turns to help paper over the cracks. Charles Bronson has a medium-sized part as a devious and dirty-minded trooper who comes good in the end, Arthur O’Connell is entertaining enough in the role of the top sergeant that Victor McLaglen played for Ford, although Slim Pickens’ talents are basically wasted.

A Thunder of Drums is available as an MOD disc in the US. However, as an alternative, there’s a perfectly acceptable release to be had in Spain. Llamentol/Paycom have presented the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is generally quite pleasing. There is a little softness in the image but it’s clean enough and the colours are nice and strong. There are no extra features offered, but the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be switched off via the setup menu. I found it interesting to see situations that Ford so skilfully presented taken on by someone else. A Thunder of Drums has none of the artistry or poetry of the old master himself, but it’s a fair enough movie all the same. Considering the inadequacies of some of the performances around him, it’s very much to Richard Boone’s credit that he was able to drive the film as much as he did. I feel that the presence of Boone, and Newman’s handling of the action and exteriors earn this at least a qualified recommendation.


22 thoughts on “A Thunder of Drums

  1. Excellent review Colin, congrats, especially for foregrounding the contribution of Bellah – writers rarely got their due int he Classical Hollywood Cinema but it is clear how important that is here but also serves to contrast what a difference the lack of as individual director like Ford can make. I haven’t seen this one but it sounds like Hollywood pretty boys Hamilton and Chamberlain are slightly miscast like Jeffrey Hunter in Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (the latter co-written by Bellah of course) – it’s easy to see why they were cast and just as easy to see why they shouldn’t have.

    The opening section in particular sounds a bit similar to the Val Lewton production APACHE DRUMS – have you ever caught up with that one?

    Out of interest, how sympathetically are the Apache represented compared with other films of this type.

    Thanks to pointing to a lesser-known title – clearly worth re-discovering.



    • Thanks Sergio.

      I saw Apache Drums many years ago on TV, and it’s stuck in my memory since. There is, I understand, an excelent DVD transfer of the film available from France. However, it’s got those annoying forced subtitles, so I haven’t picked it up. I keep hoping it will show up elsewhere.

      How are the Apache represented? Briefly, as bogeymen. For most of the running time there is a question plaguing the cavalry over whether they are faced with a threat from the Comanche or the Apache. This is only resolved right at the end. Their presence in the movie really serves only to provide a threat, and a shadowy, spectral one at that, to the troops.

      BTW, I think you’re being a little unfair to Jeffrey Hunter, who I reckon was quite an effective actor – he’s very good in The True Story of Jesse James, for example. I think a more apt comparison might be something like Troy Donahue’s bland turn in Raoul Walsh’s A Distant Trumpet.


      • I didn’t mean to be harsh about Hunter per se, more the roles he tended to get given, which mostly required him to look attractive and flash his baby blue eyes (I could have included the likes of Jim Hutton too for instance and Tab Hunter) – I’m not crazy about Ray’s JESSE JAMES remake to be honest but I also think that Wagner is clearly the stronger actor – I always think Hunter had trouble conveying darker shades to his characters whereas Wagner definitely has that in his repertoire.

        Hunter was good in several roles and I actually quite likes him in his other film with Ray, KING OF KINGS though the soubriquet it acquired (I WAS A TEENAGE JESUS) is not entirely unfair. I wonder if Hunter, had he lived longer, might not have matured as a performer – I like him a lot as Captain Pike in STAR TREK which was made towards the end of his life.


  2. Apparently when he asked to be let out of his contract with Warners things went downhill quite drastically – like troy Donahue, it may be that his rather anodyne persona got in the way though you would have though that he would have made a go of it on TV during the 60s beyond the dozens and dozens of guest appearances he made. Odd really, but not unique …


      • James Garner’s memoir released last year covered a bit of the studio system and his legal wrangling with it (some groundbreaking, in fact). It offered some info on the structure during the 50s (film and television) on through to the subsequent decades that went by the wayside (some of which he helped to break). It’s a good read — even better if you’re a Garner fan.


        • Cheers Michael. A lot of actors saw their careers falter with the break up of the studios’ control. Garner wasn’t one though – his subsequent TV career being very successful. Then again, he wasn’t exactly a bad movie actor to begin with.


  3. In Garner’s case I suppose it was unusual in that he had some great successes especially in TV though they were fairly frought. He fought with Warners to get out of MAVERICK, then got frustrated when the studio wouldn’t support his later very quirky Western NICHOLLS so it last only one season and then ended up fighting with Universal to get out ROCKFORD FILES even though it was a giant hit of which he was a partner, mainly as I understand it due to his leg injury making the grind of TV production just too onerous. I haven’t read the book yet though Jeff Pierce said very interesting things about it on his blog, The Rap Sheet (http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/)


    • I think I’d probably agree with that Chris. Both films have their shortcomings of course, but I reckon the final section of Escape from Fort Bravo is more powerful, and more unusual.

      The Burning Hills is a movie I’d like to revisit – Stuart Heisler did a good job on it and Skip Homeier was a great villain.


  4. I agree with your comment on The Burning Hills and the punch up..towards the end reminds me of a similar ending in Drumbeat. I would rate the punch up in both movies to among best in the western genre. Regards.


  5. Pingback: The Outcasts of Poker Flat | Riding the High Country

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