Distant Drums (1951)

Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Niven Busch and Martin Rackin

I’ve often said one of the things I like most about the Western genre is that it has a vast array of possible stories to tell. It often contains the same tropes, themes, etc., but there are many ways to tell these stories. One such method which we’ve yet to see here is the Florida western. The Florida western is somewhat a cross between a frontier western and a traditional one so far as I can tell. Florida doesn’t exactly invoke thoughts of outlaws and deserts that we might be used to within the genre, but in the 1800s the virgin frontier of Florida provided plenty of rough adventure for frontiersmen to conquer, not to mention the threat of Native American tribes such as the Seminole which can easily stand in for the more traditional Apache. With Distant Drums, we get to see a Florida western. I believe it’s the only such film on my list, but I’m certainly glad to have gotten the chance to behold this unique subgenre.

Lt. Tufts (Richard Webb) travels to the wetlands of Florida to meetup with the legendary Capt. Quincy Wyatt (Gary Cooper), an older officer known for his swampland expertise and hermit lifestyle. Living on a remote island, Wyatt helps Tufts lead his platoon to a remote fort which has been overtaken by the hostile Seminole indians. After retaking the fort, they discover prisoners there, including the lovely Judy Beckett (Mari Aldon) from Savannah. But when the Seminole threaten their return, they’re forced deeper into the swamp, where they must not only fight off the Seminoles, but also the threat of alligators and other nefarious creatures.

Distant Drums, what a strange, somehow rewarding film this one is. For starters, I do really like the premise of it being a Florida western. That’s so very intriguing to me, and they seamlessly incorporate the same familiar tropes, just in a new setting. It works, it doesn’t feel out of place. What does feel slightly out of place is Gary Cooper. His acting style has always been back and forth for me. He’s very laid back and laconic in many ways. In some roles it works wonders, while in others it seems lazy. It would seem to fit Capt. Wyatt perfectly here, an enigmatic hermit who is an expert in the swamps, lives alone on his private island with his son from a Native American mother, and yet, he’s really hammy in a very lazy way here. He feels so disconnected from the goings on that I really didn’t enjoy him very much in this role.

Getting a chance to see this on Blu-ray in HD was a treat. The technicolor really pops, but it also highlights some of the filmmaking gaffes this film makes. I was both disappointed and entertained by seeing some of the background stand in actors lazily act out their parts during battle scenes, etc. Like, put some effort into it guys! That’s what a lot of this movie feels like, which also contributes to the overall cheap production values. And yet, some of it is so strange that its fun! Take for instance the now famous Wilhelm Scream, something I didn’t know about until researching this film a little bit. It’s a bit of sound effect which is now famous for its use in Star Wars, but it was developed for this film for a man being eaten by an alligator. It’s just a silly scene and a silly sound effect, but really all the sound effects are kind of effective in this creative, zany way. It’s a highlight of the film.

So for these reasons, I have mixed feelings about this film. It’s really not that good I don’t think, and we of course again have the unfortunate scenario of the older man (Cooper) romancing the younger woman (Aldon), and the age difference is palpable and really doesn’t feel natural. But it’s just B-movie silly enough to have a good time with it, to find some solid entertainment value in it. I can’t say I recommend it, but it has it’s value. I did rather enjoy Arthur Hunnicutt as Monk, Wyatt’s sidekick. It felt like a role inspired by some of Walter Brennan’s sidekicks of westerns past, and adds a certain verve and laughter to the film. It’s an odd bird, and that’s really all I can think of to describe Distant Drums as a cinematic experience.

★★ – Didn’t Like It

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