Apache Drums


Filmmakers assigned to B movie projects always faced an uphill struggle at the outset: inflexible and restrictive shooting schedules, budgets pared right down to the bone, and scripts that, as often as not, lacked any spark of originality. Still and all, there were a select few who seemed to thrive under such circumstances, who had the vision or the maybe even the guts to shape something worthwhile out of the modest resources before them. Fans of classic horror are familiar with, and hold in high regard, the name of Val Lewton. This was the man whose specialist unit at RKO managed to produce a series of classy, polished little nightmares that not only transcended their frugal budgets but actually succeeded because there was so little money available. Apache Drums (1951), made at Universal, was Lewton’s last feature as producer before his untimely death from a heart attack. The film is the only western he was involved in, and it’s such an effective and atmospheric little picture that I can’t help but wonder how he might have fared within the genre had his life not ended so prematurely.

The story is derived from Harry Brown’s Stand at Spanish Boot, and it tells a fairly standard tale. Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) is a gambler, a seemingly incorrigible ne’er-do-well (he’s even earned himself the unwelcome nickname “Slick”) who quite literally opens proceedings with a bang, shooting dead a rival card player in the stark saloon in the town of Spanish Boot. I found it a particularly nice touch that the shooting takes place off-screen as it immediately lends a sense of ambiguity to Sam’s character. He says it was self-defense and no-one seriously doubts that, still the seeds of suspicion are planted in our minds right from the off. The shooting comes at a bad time from Sam’s perspective: the mayor/blacksmith Joe Madden (Willard Parker) has been talked into a kind of moral crusade by the Welsh (the nationality has some significance later in the movie) parson Griffin (Arthur Shields) and Sam is given his marching orders. The fact that Madden is Sam’s rival for the affections of local girl Sally (Coleen Gray) rubs further salt into his wounds but he has no alternative. The dance hall girls have just been sent packing, and Sam is the next undesirable to be ejected. Thus we have the classic western staple of the outcast, shunned by the decent folk and driven out beyond the bounds of civilization. However, Sam’s exile is a short-lived one; he soon caches up with the wagon of girls, or rather their massacred remains. With his dying breath, the freshly scalped piano player who had been accompanying the spurned ladies tells of a formidable Apache raiding party appearing ghostlike and descending upon them. Sam gives his word to hightail it back to Spanish Boot and warn the solid citizens of the impending attack. The thing is he’s neither welcome nor trusted in his former home, the residents, with the tacit support of Madden, being on the point of riding him out of town on a rail before the arrival of a shot-up stagecoach bears out his words. It’s at this stage that the tension starts to build, as the Apache threat draws ever closer. Eventually, the net closes in to the point where all the survivors are holed up and under siege in the old church. Here, in the latter half of the movie, the camera never leaves the interior of the building and so heightens the feeling of helplessness and suspense, as the drums pound throughout the night and the defenders wait and watch for the Apache to leap howling through the high windows.


In writing about a lot of 50s westerns, one word crops up again and again – redemption. There’s no getting away from it; it quite literally pervades the genre throughout the decade, with even relatively humble and unpretentious efforts like Apache Drums having the concept at their core. All of the three main characters – Sam Leeds, Griffin and Madden – redeem themselves before the final fade out. Madden initially comes across as a vaguely priggish figure, allowing his preconceptions of Sam to colour his judgement and using his authority as means of furthering his own personal desires. But through enforced confinement with the man he regards as his opponent, he’s able to rise above his own inherent pettiness to attain a kind of nobility by the end. Griffin is a moral and religious absolutist, quick to judge and condemn all those who he considers to have strayed from the path of righteousness. Again, the circumstances he’s forced into lead to a reassessment of his former stance. There’s a marvelous little moment during the siege, where the preacher who had previously spoken in the most derogatory and disparaging terms about the Apache scout in their midst, Pedro-Peter (Armando Silvestre), moves across to kneel beside him. With the shadows of death creeping ever nearer, these two men pray to their respective deities side by side. And finally there’s Sam Leeds. He starts out expressing nothing but casual contempt for all those poor saps who slave away trying to earn an honest living and build a community. He’s of the opinion that he’s too smart for all that guff, that his only concern is his own welfare and comfort. Yet, he too (perhaps more than the others) finds that the threat from without carries a lesson for him. By putting aside his selfishness and obsession with self-preservation, he grows visibly as a human being. In their roles, Parker, Shields and McNally all manage to create rounded characters that are believable due to their respective weaknesses and prejudices. When you’re dealing with a low budget production such as this, good characterization, and the performers capable of achieving it, is a huge plus.

While the acting is important if you’re counting the pennies, it’s all likely to come to nothing if the technical expertise isn’t present behind the cameras. As I said in the introduction, producer Val Lewton was a past master at wringing the maximum out of limited resources. His RKO chillers all had a very distinctive look and feel, regarding shadow, darkness and the unseen and unknown as assets rather than obstacles. Such is the case with Apache Drums. Some of the most effective sequences follow on from events that the audience never get to see: both Sam’s deadly gunplay and the massacre of the saloon girls happen off-screen and the viewer only gets to witness the consequences of these events. The final section of the movie, which leaves the audience with no choice other than to view the action from the perspective of the terrified townsfolk means that we share in their sense of helplessness and dread. Of course Lewton was either clever or fortunate enough to work with talented directors on his projects. Between them the producer and director Hugo Fregonese work wonders in this section of the film: the image of garishly painted warriors springing through the high windows, backlit by the flames of the burning town, is like a vision out of hell, and retains a powerful shock value. I made brief mention earlier of the fact that Arthur Shields played a Welsh preacher. The reason for my drawing attention to his character’s nationality relates to a passage which takes place during the climactic siege. As the incessant beating of the war drums outside the walls begins to take its psychological toll on those inside, the decision is made to do something in an attempt to boost morale. Shields, playing a Welshman, leads the defenders in a chorus of Men of Harlech. In itself it’s a nice moment, but it’s also significant in that the scene would be mirrored in Cy Endfield’s Zulu over a decade later.


Apache Drums is a film that seemed quite difficult to see for many years. I caught a television broadcast back when I was a teenager and it stuck in my mind, probably because of the imagery as much as anything. At the moment, there are three DVD editions available: from France, Spain and Germany. From various comments I’ve seen, I get the impression they are all derived from the same source, though the French release will have forced subtitles. I have the Spanish DVD from Llamentol, which presents the film in the correct Academy ratio, and boasts a fine overall transfer – it’s sharp, colourful and well-defined. Subtitles are not an issue and can be turned off on the setup menu. The disc also offers the original theatrical trailer for the film, but that’s it in terms of extra features. I really like the film; it’s pacy, well structured and exciting. Aside from that, it looks good, with the kind of visual flair that’s typical of a Lewton production. A low budget sleeper that I happily recommend.



37 thoughts on “Apache Drums

  1. Fantastic write-up Colin. I too saw this one on the telly a couple of decades ago and the shadowy climax has never left me. Watching that creepy just makes you think that Lewton could have made CAT PEOPLE in colour and made it work too. I probably first saw Lewton’s horror films as a young teen and as such were among the first genre films that I ever saw in a serious way for their subtext as well as their fine, chiaroscuro exterior – great to be reminded of the perfectly formed little classics. And I had no idea it was available on DVD – thanks again, I am definitely ordering this one!


    • Thanks Sergio. Anything with Lewton’s name attached seems to have a memorable quality, don’t you think? It’s almost impossible to to mention the man and not be reminded of his RKO horror work, but this film proves he had the ability to adapt his style to other genres too.

      I would have been a few years younger than you when I first experienced Lewton’s movies. Those horror double-bill seasons that BBC2 used to run on Saturday nights introduced me to both Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. They had a real effect, as I’m sure you can imagine, at that age. I was hooked and, bit by bit, I caught up with the others. Although it was only when the DVD box set was released that I finally saw Ghost Ship.


      • I rerember finally seeing GHOST SHIP when the Beeb ran a season of ‘rescued from the archives’ titles, probably in the 90s … (yikes). The Warner box is very impressive – I actually bought the original Laser Disc set for about £100 …


        • Ghost Ship was kind of like the grail of Lewton movies for a long time, or it seemed that way to me. I don’t think it’s actually as well regarded as his other films yet I quite like it – it’s especially nice to see the unusual looking Skelton Knaggs get so much time on screen.

          I never got into laserdisc, I was too poor. Sadly, some things never seem to change.


            • Aside from the lack of funds, there never seemed to be any laserdiscs on sale anywhere round me – of course that was out in the sticks and in the pre-internet days, back when the world was still in black & white.


              • My friends and I used to travel hours to shops in Essex or in King’s Cross to get imported NTSC discs which were so much more exciting that the inevitably vanilla UK versions. I can’t believe now the amount of time, money and effort we invested in them.


            • Yes, Starscafe. I’ve had no issues with them, they have fairly regular reductions on prices, and the customer service is good. The only negative is that they seem to hold only limited stock on hand, so it’s not uncommon to wait a week or so for shipment. I generally alternate between them and Amazon.es for Spanish releases.


  2. I adore Val Lewton, a great producer, and I understand why emphasis is on him in any discussion of this, sadly his last production. But although I very much liked everything you did write in the piece, Colin, I would like to see Fregonese get more of his share of the credit. He was brilliant, and Lewton was said to have liked him and would have worked with him again. Fregonese’s direction, in compostion, mood, ambiance, playing has a subtlety that recalls Lewton’s first and best director, Jacques Tourneur, and I believe based on his films I’ve seen (all of his 50s films but one and THE SAVAGE PAMPAS in the 60s) that he may have been almost as gifted. The kind of style that a Tourneur or Fregonese practiced, in which everything in the frame quietly has a value and we are not aggressively pushed to react, is the opposite of what Hollywood does now. It would be hard for anyone to direct that way and find a place as they once were able to, and maybe that’s why I treasure these directors and never tire of returning to their films, many of which are superficially modest but almost always turn out to be deeply rewarding. I know this came up before with Fregonese with THE RAID and your excellent piece on that film, so just want to give him some extra points again for another movie that is both aesthetically delicate and dramatically exciting. Like Tourneur, he is one of my dozen favorite directors of Westerns.


    • You’re right Blake, I could and probably should have focused more on Fregonese. Lewton seemed to have a huge influence over his films; all of them have a certain look and feel that’s unmistakeable and it’s tempting to highlight that at the expense of the directors involved. But I agree that Fregonese brought a lot of subtlety to his films. I certainly haven’t seen as much of his output as yourself, but what I have seen has made an impression. Some of the outdoor scenes in the first half of the movie are very well shot, especially the aftermath of the massacre, and Shields and McNally’s trek back to town following the Apache skirmish. They open the picture out much more, and act as a nice contrast to the claustrophobia of the latter half in the church – I’m fond of that kind of structure, the narrowing and concentration or confinement of focus over the course of a film.

      Tourneur is another director I really ought to feature more often on this site. I think he produced some terrific work across genres and his westerns are exceptionally good. As it happens, I plan to do a piece on Wichita in the not too distant future.


  3. This was a terrific post, Colin, and I always enjoy it when you spotlight a film I’ve never seen or even heard of (though I must confess the title of this one sounds familiar). Last Halloween I finally dipped into that Val Lewton horror DVD set and marveled anew at how much he and his directors were able to get out of such modest resources, especially in their use of light and shadow to establish a palpable mood. From your review, it sounds like Lewton encouraged Fregonese to utilize those techniques to ramp up the horror angle of the final Apache assault. (Speaking of Fregonese, I haven’t seen any of his films either, though I have a copy of THE RAID and plan to watch that one soon).


    • Thanks Jeff, glad you enjoyed it.

      Lewton’s stuff is wonderful and once you get into it it grows on you even more. His unit was one class outfit.

      As for Fregonese, and The Raid, I can recommend it highly – an extremely fine movie.


  4. Hi Colin….I continue to admire your hard work to share Westerns that may have now slipped under the “cultural radar” and just had a quick question (having not seen the film myself)….does the film give a reason for the Apache attack and/or any screen time for an individual Indigenous character?

    While understanding that this is a “settler perspective” film, I am just curious as to whether the Indigenous group is simply an anonymous collective (and thus functions in a way as just a plot-device for tension) or whether the film explores any of the territorial issues/reasons for the attack on the settlers?



    • Chad, that’s a good question. The answer is both yes and no I guess.
      The movie opens with a few line on the screen to inform viewers that Victorio’s Mescaleros were on the warpath in the South West, and is interrupted by a spoken prolog where an Apache speaks of his people being squeezed between into a narrow band of territory by the Mexicans to the south and the Americans to the north. The captions then return to say: A hungry people rose to fight. Their fury fell upon settled places where peaceful Americans carried on trade and Welsh miners dug for silver. One of these places was the town of Spanish Boot.

      The attacking Apaches remain essentially anonymous, although Victorio is referenced frequently. Personally, I feel this is done to heighten the tension by presenting a virtually faceless yet powerful and relentless enemy – it’s very effective. The Apache scout does feature prominently though, and his presence is used to point up the contrast between the liberal tolerance of the cavalry officer he serves under and the narrow-minded and suspicious attitude of the preacher.


  5. Colin, my feeling is that your answer to Chad is exactly right. The opening of the film makes the Apaches’ motivation very clear. I think that’s enough–it’s like many other 50s Westerns in that regard. Because of the narrative, they are a fearsome enemy to the Spanish Boot characters whom we are asked to know and empathize with. The movie respects the Apache and does not demonize them. I will say again that the great weight of 50s Westerns falls on the side of seeing Indians as the dispossessed, and that’s historically the case. But within this context, any story can be told and a movie does not need to explicitly take a side or simplistically see either white settlers or Indians as villains even when they are enemies to each other–a work of art is actually better when we can sort out truths for ourselves and I know from my own experience 50s audiences were able to do this.

    Movies done resourcefully and imaginatively are such a joy. I put in a word for Fregonese earlier and he deserves it but enough cannot be said for Lewton, not only for his ideas but for encouraging directors, not only Tourneur and Fregonese, whose styles are so well-suited to his films, but Wise and Robson, who were at their best in their films for him. I rewatched the whole 9 film cyle of Lewton so-called horror films for RKO last year and there is so much to said for all of them.


    • I think the film adopts a pretty mature approach in this regard – and as you’ve said, that tended to be the rule rather than the exception at the time – by placing the events in context and then proceeding to tell the tale.

      I like that you refer to Lewton’s RKO cycle as “so-called horrors” – they’re so much more than what any genre label suggests, aren’t they? At their best, they become dreamy fables which work on many levels.


  6. Thanks for your reply, Colin (and for your thoughts as well, Blake)….I appreciate the info that the film’s opening provides some context to the actions of the Apache. I am always interested in the provision of such a back-story as it helps, as you both note, to work toward more balanced portrayals. For myself, films that include at least some mention of treaty rate higher in the provision of context – i.e. whether a treaty was reached to create space for non-Indigenous expansion, whether it was broken by a group, whether expansion moved into areas without the creation of treaty at all That remains an important point, in my view, as it underlies the entire westward expansion of non-Indigenous populations in North America….from the Atlantic coast onward, in fact.

    Thanks for your thoughts.


  7. Colin, this was a fascinating review of a film I was totally unfamiliar with — given my growing interest in Coleen Gray your post immediately caught my interest. The staging sounds fascinating — after reading your review and the following comments, I also read some of the comments at IMDb. While the opinions on the film vary, they all indicate the final sequence in the church is stunning. Thanks for calling another little known but interesting Western to my attention to seek out, I love Western “discoveries” such as this! Looking forward to seeing it in the future.

    Best wishes,


    • Hi Laura. The second half is just great, but there’s plenty of good stuff preceding it too. I know you like classic westerns, and those from the 50s especially. As such, I think this one would be right up your street as it bears the hallmarks of a typical 50s Universal western. I hope you get the opportunity to check it out for yourself.


  8. One of the very best B western movies ever. “Apache Drums” = less is more. Since it was first shown on TV in 1991 (in France, I mean), many a western fan was looking forward to watching it again. And its long expected release on dvd is a treat. Beautiful visual rendition of a small western which has achieved a cult movie status in our country. Outstanding photography. A true splendor. And perfectly paced as well. Compare Stephen McNally’s acting here with “Winchester ’73″‘s. Here is an actor whose intelligence and subtlety cannot be discussed (confirmed by the great James Stewart’s comments to “Winchester ’73” : “Great actor”, said Jimmy about McNally). The very first image of “Apache Drums”, when a door opens between darkness and the bright desert landscape, predates the unforgettable opening of “The Searchers”. And the arrival of the stagecoach packed with arrows and corpses was to be remembered in Boetticher’s “Ride Lonesome”, I’d say. Val Lewton’s mark on this unique picture is undeniable. You can find the same kind of effective economy, suspense and visual achievement that were already present in such horror movies as “Cat People”, “I Walked with a Zombie” or “The Leopard Man”. “Apache Drums” stands out as a neglected gem of the Golden Age of Western. Once again, Colin’s right.


    • Samuel, it’s great to hear that this film is so well regarded in France. It really does show just what a talented cast and crew can achieve with limited resources.

      It certainly is packed with imagery that is startling, beautiful and memorable. And McNally was a real class act, rarely playing the lead but always great value whatever his role.


  9. Pingback: The Val Lewton Blogathon: Apache Drums (1951). « 50 Westerns From The 50s.

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  11. Great review, Colin.
    An excellent duster which highlights just how good McNally could be when given more screen time than his usual supporting roles provided. Seen this a good half dozen time since i was a kid and love it. There is another UNIVERSAL western made a year earlier with McNally in the lead that I like, called, WYOMING MAIL. Saw it on You-Tube and have a write-up on IMDB.


    • McNally was very capable and very versatile. When he did get a leading role he handled it just fine as far as I’m concerned.
      I have a copy (unwatched, naturally) of Wyoming Mail somewhere. Isn’t that just a dreadful title, by the way? If you wanted to kill the box office potential of a movie, you honestly would be hard pressed to think of a surer way.


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  13. Sorry to be so late at the party but I’m reading this post just now.

    Apache Drums is one of my favourite westerns, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise since it has been a cult movie here ever since its release, helped by a wonderful French title, “Quand les Tambours s’arrêteront” which roughly translates as “When the Drums Stop” and is one of the very, very few instances when French film distributors were able to come up with something better than the original. One of the movie’s most enthusiastic admirers is director/critic/historian Bertrand Tavernier who contributed a long, exhaustive and typically perceptive analysis of it to the French DVD edition. Tavernier among other things expresses bafflement that it is so obscure in its native country, being dismissed by most American film critics as “just another Universal B-western”. The French edition at the time of its release was the only one in the world and I guess the Italian and Spanish ones you mention “borrowed” from it. As far as I know the movie is still unavailable on the American market and by the look of things will remain so a long time yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Xavier. In my opinion, there’s no such thing s being late – I feel one of main reasons for writing anything online is to allow people to access and respond when it suits them to do so.

      It is a very underappreciated western and I’m not sure why, although it does seem to me that the French have a far higher regard for the artistic value of the western than those in their country of origin. I think this is due a Blu-ray release somewhere soon – Germany perhaps?


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