Wednesday, December 21, 2011

DRUM BEAT (1954)

Among fans of 1950s Westerns, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher have their multitudes of champions, so I always like to say a word for Delmer Daves. If not their peer, Daves was definitely the third master to emerge during the genre's golden decade. Like Mann and Boetticher, Daves's western work was chronologically specific to the decade, spanning from Broken Arrow in 1950 through The Hanging Tree in 1959 before he switched to romance pictures like A Summer Place. Often his own writer, Daves was arguably more of an auteur than his peers in terms of creative control, and his name meant enough to be placed above the title of his big-budget Cinemascope western, a star vehicle for an Alan Ladd fresh from Shane and a kind of perverse do-over of Broken Arrow. But while that film established an archetype of a noble Indian in Jeff Chandler's Cochise, Drum Beat gives us Charles Bronson as an intransigent monster who predictably steals the film from Ladd and captured Daves's imagination in a way that muddies whatever message the director meant his movie to have.

"The phrase or slogan of 'peaceful co-existence' is fastening on the public mind in a drum-beat sort of way, beginning softly, slowly, and increasing in tempp and force....The slogan needs exact definition. 'Peaceful co-existence,' conceivably, could become peace-at-a-price -- any price!
The Milwaukee Sentinel, Nov. 18 1954.

The metaphor is just a coincidence -- the sort of thing you get when you search for "Drum Beat" circa November 1954 on the Google News Archive -- but it gives you an idea of the political environment in which Drum Beat was released, with the Cold War still going strong despite Joe McCarthy's fall from grace. Daves had made a film about a peacemaker. In 1872, Johnny MacKay (Ladd) has been summoned to Washington by President Grant. In an interestingly awkward scene, a guard outside the White House invites McKay to stroll right into the Executive Mansion. In the lobby, an old man notes his gun and knife and asks if he means to shoot the President. The oldster goes on to joke about Grant's smoking and drinking before identifying himself as the President's father. Grant himself ushers McKay into a lavish sitting room, where he commissions MacKay to negotiate peace with the Modoc tribe in the Lost River valley. There's already a treaty, but war chief Captain Jack (Bronson) refuses to acknowledge it. MacKay will have to deal with Jack despite the skepticism of a pacifist minister who champions Indian rights. Jack calls himself a captain because he collects pieces of army uniforms and decorates himself with medals plundered off military victims. Not all Modocs agree with him, while some are even more extreme than he, but he bullies and blusters his way to power. He also seems to have some white settlers under his control, having provided them with Indian wives. There's an air of appeasement in the valley that might make 1954 viewers see Captain Jack as a stand-in for the Commies, and his success as an insurgent against incompetent army attacks also makes him a kind of prophecy of the Vietcong and other guerrilla foes of America. But the message of the movie seems to be that we should never stop trying to negotiate peace with hardcases like Jack, no matter how risky it becomes -- and in Jack's case, it's very risky for an erstwhile Indian fighter like Johnny MacKay, who upholds the President's policy despite demands for violent reprisal from hothead whites, one of whom (Robert Keith) starts a war with a vengeance shooting of the Modoc who murdered his wife.

For the record, Daves didn't write Broken Arrow. It's possible that his Drum Beat screenplay is a critique of what was probably still regarded as his greatest triumph as a director. He seems to consciously retreat from the noble-Indian archetype, forefronting a savage enemy who talks in the still-convention pidgin Injun lingo. Indeed, Daves stages scenes in which Captain Jack confronts the brother-sister team of good Modocs, Manok (Anthony Caruso) and Toby (Marisa Pavan) in a Modoc camp -- and they all talk what Jack calls "Boston English" at each other. Jack even tells his supporters at one point to talk amongst themselves in Boston English so the rest of the Modocs won't know their plans. It's especially embarrassing to see Bronson talk this way after seeing him play a chief without the dialect in Samuel Fuller's Run of the Arrow, but his whole performance here (apparently in his first role under his new stage name) is wildly over the top, yet unfocused. Most of the time Jack is a Magua-esque villain, but there's an odd moment when he's nearly convinced to negotiate peace sincerely, only to be bullied back into intransigence by one of his underlings. Finally, after presenting Jack as an iredeemable monster through most of the picture, Daves stretches out the finish after MacKay captures Jack alive so Ladd and Bronson can have a scene comparing their visions of the afterlife and the two men can shake hands before Jack is hanged, as if the "Captain" had been a noble adversary all along. It's as if Daves didn't know what to make with the character after Bronson was through with it, and the auteur's confusion makes Jack's symbolic role, if he really has any, even more unclear. The only clear message that survives the story is the idea that individuals, not entire populations, are to blame for war. This point is made when MacKay criticizes calls for all-out extermination of the Modocs made after Jack had treacherously attacked McKay himself and other negotiators. Daves may not be as sensitive as his Broken Arrow collaborators, but he doesn't want to be seen as an Indian-hater either. He even teases a Broken Arrow style romance between MacKay and Toby, though the hero's heart ultimately belongs to a white girl, and Toby gets her head bashed in with a rock.

When Daves later cast Alan Ladd in The Badlanders, a Westernization of The Asphalt Jungle, the star promptly had the picture stolen from him by Ernest Borgnine. The record suggests that Daves had little more idea what to do with Ladd, for different reasons, than he had for Bronson. Part of the problem with Drum Beat is that the picture has a story, but not a plot. That is, Johnny MacKay never develops after that promising scene in the White House, and Ladd quickly reverts to his typically inert self. If you wonder why he never really capitalized on Shane, here's part of the proof. More might have been made of the romantic triangle, but Daves is so mesmerized by Bronson's rampage that Pavan interacts with him more and Audrey Dalton, as the white girl, practically disappears from the picture. If Drum Beat is about the difficulties created by an intractable leader, that character itself created crippling difficulties for the picture. That insoluble problem wastes Daves's characteristically scenic location work -- a few soundstage scenes notwithstanding -- but then again Encore Western's typical pan-and-scan presentation was a waste of the film's pictorial splendor and some of its dramatic energy. It might suffice as an outdoor adventure -- Ladd and Bronson have a nice little fight while being carried down a rushing stream and there's a neat portrait in futility as the army storms Jack's hilltop stronghold and is shot to pieces -- but Drum Beat is the weakest Daves western that I've seen so far and regrettable proof that while Daves still deserves recognition as the third master of Fifties westerns, he's not really the equal of the other two.

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