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Olive Films has now issued about nine Blu-rays of Milton Sperling's "United States Productions", a group of independent titles originally released through Warner Bros.. They mostly disappeared from Television broadcasts long ago, but are making a big comeback now.
A particularly attractive Sperling show is 1951's Distant Drums, a Gary Cooper action vehicle in glorious Technicolor. Attempts to market attractive discs from 3-Strip Tech pictures can be tough, as not too many titles justify the astronomical costs of digital re-compositing using original materials. Most Technicolor shows were protected with photochemical Eastmancolor composite negatives, but if they were poorly made, improving them can be difficult. The happy news is that this particular show seems to be in perfect condition.
-- Note: the colors on the disc look far, far better than in the images seen here.
Distant Drums is a well-directed Army vs. Indians saga. There are few surprises in script or characters, but the matinee fans of '51 liked the picture, as did most critics sympathetic to undemanding action fare. Maps and voiceovers explain that it's 1840, near the end of the seven-year Second Seminole War. The Army and the Navy have undertaken to put a stop to the 'Indian problem' in the treacherous wilderness of central Florida. Navy Lt. Richard Tufts (Richard Webb) is dispatched to haul a fair-sized sailboat across dry land, to enable Captain Quincy Wyatt (Gary Cooper) to move his forty troops for a sneak attack on an old Spanish fort, where Spanish-speaking gunrunners and pirates have been selling guns to the Seminoles. Quincy leaves his island haven (and his small son), seizes the fort and destroys its contraband. But when deadly Seminole braves block the escape route, Quincy and Tufts flee with their troops and some rescued prisoners directly into the dreaded Okefenokee Swamp. One of the liberated prisoners is the attractive Judy Beckett (Mari Aldon). Tufts is convinced that she is a 'quality' woman from Savannah, but Wyatt recognizes her manners as being strictly from the swamplands -- where he was raised as well.
Distant Drums can claim a fairly original subject. Viewers expecting a Western will find themselves in a pre-Civil War America story uncluttered with historical facts -- the Seminoles are enemies plain and simple, a menace that must be eliminated. The sight of a 30-foot boat being hauled overland is impressive. Cooper is decked out in an unusual backwoods costume, one probably tweaked by the color consultants to take advantage of Technicolor. It's amusing that the secret mission uses a boat with a black sail so the Seminoles won't spot it at night -- when the soldiers themselves look like rows of colorful Christmas toys.
Cooper's Quincy Wyatt is a man of legend. He lost his Indian wife in an unfortunate past event that would now be called a Hate Crime. Wyatt has been living the good life on his freshwater island paradise, until General (and future President) Zachary Taylor (Robert Barrat) asks for his help. Interestingly, when Lt. Tufts is taken into the wilderness, his guide Monk (Arthur Hunnicutt) builds up the mystery of Wyatt with dialogue that sounds like descriptions of Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Wyatt reportedly uses unknown methods and has the loyalty of non-Seminole Indian allies. He's operating on his own. Actor Arthur Hunnicutt was just one film away from a promotion to major supporting player status, in Howard Hawks' The Big Sky and Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men. But after giving the opening of Distant Drums some class, his character retreats mostly to the semi-background.
It looks as if the cost of Technicolor and Gary Cooper indicated the hiring of cheaper supporting actors. Although some doubles are used, veritable unknown Mari Aldon drags herself through the forests and swamps along with the rest of the cast. The attempt to pump some sex into the proceedings is handled with discretion, considering that none of the characters has had a bath in weeks; Aldon and Cooper do manage a kiss or two. Aldon's name faded quickly after this standout role. She's certainly good enough for the movie, and participated in a lot of cheesecake photography to promote it.
Technicolor movies by independent producers were often stingy with camera angles, because each new camera setup in the process could be very time-consuming. Director Raoul Walsh performs miracles considering Distant Drums' distant, difficult location. As two-thirds of the picture is a prolonged trek through the swamps, a lot of coverage is required to depict battles fought in two and three feet of water. A couple of dummy 'gators see use, yet in some shots we also see the real thing. In one scene Cooper threatens to let a venomous snake bite a captured Seminole. In Blu-ray we can see reflections that give away the sheet of glass protecting the actors. Walsh and ace cameraman Sid Hickox must have worked out some clever shortcuts to get the most from each camera position.
Writers Niven Busch and Martin Rackin keep the dialogue fairly light, but the second half of the show does slow down. The shrinking patrol of soldiers rows through bayous and marches through tall grass, interrupted by lively but repetitive shoot-outs with the elaborately costumed Indians. 1 In form the film reminds us of older 'war trek' movies. It's structured almost identically to MGM's enormously expensive Northwest Passage (1940). The flight in the swamp echoes back to two Errol Flynn movies, the pirate saga The Sea Hawk and Objective Burma! Raoul Walsh directed Burma, so was no stranger to the problem.
The noted 'Wilhelm Scream' is heard in Distant Drums when a soldier is pulled under by a hungry alligator. Although I've read that the effect was recorded for and used first in this picture, I'm pretty sure I've heard it in Universal-International's Tap Roots from 1948.
Helping out in smaller roles in this action-oriented thriller are Ray Teal, Gregg Barton, Darren McGavin and Sheb Wooley. Distant Drums winds up its conflict with a mano-a-mano knife fight between Cooper and the Seminole chief, mostly underwater. It's not exactly original but it plays well enough. Gary Cooper was so bankable at this time that I wouldn't be surprised if he had his own money in the show, or perhaps offered his acting services for a fat cut of the take.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Distant Drums is a simply gorgeous encoding of this 3-Strip jungle battle adventure. The colors pop just like original IB Tech prints, and I only saw one or two shots that had a bit of color fringing. More than one close-up might have been filmed in front of a painted forest backdrop, but I can barely tell the difference. To be honest, I'd forgotten that this show was in color. When the titles popped on I thought I was watching The Wizard of Oz.
Olive Films also lucks out with a perfect soundtrack mixed in the dynamic Warners style of those years. Max Steiner's wall-to-wall music score intersperses his old-fashioned Indian themes with measures of martial music from the Navy and Army. The music certainly keeps us anticipating more action, all through the movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Distant Drums Blu-ray rates:
1. The men appear to carry muzzle loaders, but Coop seems to have acquired a Colt repeating six-gun from twenty or twenty-five years in the future. This becomes more apparent when Wyatt snaps off five and six shots in fast succession. In 1940 there were as yet no brass cartridges. Each bullet and firing charge had to be carefully packed into a pistol's cylinder. Or at least that's what I recall armorer Syd Stembridge telling me on the set of 1941.
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