When sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans became fashionable in 1950s westerns, the Apaches became the most fashionably sympathetic of Indians. Why that should have been the case I can't say. Maybe it's because they looked different from most movie Indians, more civilized somehow because they didn't wear the stereotypical war bonnet or feathers in the hair. Whatever the idea was, it led to a cycle of Cochise films and continued with this colorful Bel Air production from the people who gave us The Black Sleep: producers Howard W. Koch and Aubrey Schenck, writer Gerald Drayson Adams and director Reginald Le Borg.
The protagonist this time is Cochise's father-in-law, Mangas Coloradas (Lex Barker), and the main story of the picture is an interracial romantic triangle that isn't quite equilateral. Mangas and his white friend Luke Fargo (Ben Johnson) are friendly rivals for the Mexican spitfire Riva (Joan Taylor). Mangas has the advantage here because he saw her first, rescuing her from virtual slavery in a comanchero camp despite her best effort to kill him. His shield with its three layers of buffalo hide fends off her close-range rifle blast, and despite his traditionalist ways he's as impressed by Riva's fighting spirit as Fargo is by her looks. No amount of trade goods will persuade Mangas to give her up, but Fargo, this film's good white man, is a good sport about it.
Speaking of the Apaches' relative degree of civilization, they seem positively bourgeois in their conservative disdain for Riva, a liberated woman in more than one sense. Apache women warn her constantly that she'll have to do all the household work, including building a wikiup from scratch after gathering the raw materials, now that Mangas intends, again to the women's disdain, to make Riva his wife. But Riva has had enough drudgery in her life with the comancheros, and Mangas apparently agrees with her. After she gets into a fight with some tribal women over her indifference to domestic chores, the young chief decides she's better suited for a warrior's role. He teachers her to hunt and shoot and she proves a quick study, while Mangas fights two tribal rivals to the death to defend his right to marry the outsider. Not even a fine horse Fargo offers in his latest trade package will turn Mangas from his marital purpose. Again a good sport, Fargo turns the trade goods into wedding presents. Meanwhile, playing the usual white-man's role in such encounters, Riva teaches the nose-rubbing Mangas how to kiss.
Inevitably some no-account white trash find gold in a stream on Mangas' territory, terrorizing the residents of a nearby wikiup and shooting a little boy. They won't believe Mangas when he tells them there are richer gold deposits not far away and flog him for a liar, the worst humiliation an Apache can endure.Now Mangas makes war, donning the red shirt that earned him the "Coloradas" nickname to hide the scars on his back, and so does Riva. She shoots one of the offending whites in the back with an arrow, but it doesn't go deep enough to keep him from going crying to the Army. Fargo agrees to lead a party under a white flag to get Mangas' side of the story, but the Apaches anticipate a sneak attack and the Cavalry obliges. Fargo, unwilling to fight, gets wounded and is healed by Riva. This is the white man's best chance, but it's still no dice. He's fascinated by her blend of beauty and bloodlust, and she explains this by revealing her half-breed nature as the daughter of a Mexican and a Comanche. Fargo's response: "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." Later, it's Mangas's turn to be wounded, but this time he needs modern medical skills to save his life so his tribe takes a white settlement hostage, the settlers' lives forfeit unless their doctor can extract a bullet from the war chief's chest. Despite the distraction of a woman in labor, the doctor does the job. Fargo arrives with fresh cavalry to find what still looks like a hostage situation, but Mangas explains that the doctor had fulfilled his end of the bargain, so he has no power over the settlers. On his own initiative Fargo arranges a safe-conduct for the Apaches, offering them the friendly advice to stay high in the inaccessible hills for a while.
In reality, the whites captured Mangas and reportedly tortured the old man into making the escape attack that customarily allowed you to kill an enemy, but the Fifties Apache cycle (which continued into the next decade with 1962's Geronimo) often tries to have things both ways, acknowledging the injustices done to Native Americans while allowing them happy endings of sorts. Cochise, who died undefeated, made the perfect hero for this cycle, while erasing the actual end of Mangas Coloradas makes him an easier fit for the formula. By 1957 the novelty of articulate, intelligent, sympathetic Apaches must have worn off a little, though it may still have been a novelty for some to see recent Tarzan Lex Barker give an articulate performance in any role. Neither he nor Johnson (whose career seemed to be in freefall after an early push) is very charismatic, but the real novelty that makes War Drums worth seeing today is Joan Taylor as an all-out woman warrior in an explicit repudiation of the traditional female role in a Fifties film. She makes a modest outdoor western just a little bit more than that.