It’s a rather curious thing that Delmer Daves, who directed a film as good – and as influential - as Broken Arrow in 1950, could make such a weak ‘Indian’ movie only four years later.
Of course Ladd is one of the problems. In 1950 James Stewart had burst onto the screen with his new tough-guy image, all passion and grit, but Alan Ladd? He was just too soft, too short, too Beverly Hills to be convincing in the saddle. His Western clothes always looked like costumes. His hair was too blond, too coiffed. No, sorry, it just didn’t work.
I say Delmer Daves ‘made’ it: he both wrote and directed Drum Beat, so there are few others to blame. Excuses? It was made for Alan Ladd’s production company Jaguar, so perhaps it was constrained by that. It was for Warners rather than Fox, so maybe the studio insisted on its being bad (most of its early 50s Westerns were). Another reason might be that Arrow was a distinctly liberal film and four years had passed since Broken Arrow, years in which McCarthyism had really taken hold: maybe now films in which liberalism is shown to fail (the peace council scene) and the necessity for war against the enemy is apparent (whoever the far right considered to be enemies at the time, communists, probably) were more likely to succeed. And 1950s Hollywood was hardly noted for its courageous stand in favor of minorities, or free speech.
Whatever the reason, Daves seems to have suppressed his pro-Indian sentiments and come up with an old-fashioned Western in which the Indians are the bad guys.
The hero is an Indian fighter, which isn’t a terribly good start. True, Daves seeks to play this down. Johnny McKay (Ladd) is an ex-Indian fighter, charged in the opening scene by a peace-loving President Ulysses S Grant (Hayden S Rorke) with being a peace commissioner to tame the Modocs without gunplay. Yes, Modocs – we are on the California/Oregon border this time. Of course the Modocs are indistinguishable from Hollywood Apaches; they are kitted out by central casting with standard costumes and have the obligatory red headbands and Winchesters. They do that ug-speak, even when talking to each other. “Me want fight bluecoats”, that kind of thing. Oh dear. But McKay never quite manages this peace business, and under his watch Modocs are killed here and there (though he doesn’t actually shoot them himself). Finally he persuades Grant that this peace malarkey is not on, and he resumes Indian fighting.
The Indian chief isn’t a noble and statesmanlike Jeff Chandler, either. It’s Charles Bronson, in his first major role since leaving his Buchinsky moniker behind him, as Modoc supremo Captain Jack. He’s a 2D Indian baddy, and the film essentially blames him for the trouble. With breath-taking hypocrisy, Daves has McKay say to the chief, “We could have saved a lot of lives, Jack, if you hadn’t grabbed country that wasn’t yours.” History is thus rewritten so that it was the Indians who took land that wasn’t theirs.
Daves wrote that the film was “almost a documentary about the wars conducted by the Modoc Indians, made in a manner which conforms totally to the truth.” Notice that it was a war “conducted by the Modoc Indians”, as if the whites had nothing to do with it. And if this film “conforms totally to the truth”, then I am a Dutchman. I don't mind Westerns that are historical hooey but I do get annoyed when they claim to be factual and aren't.
Chapter 10 of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is entitled The Ordeal of Captain Jack, and while I am the first to admit that Dee Brown may not be primus inter pares when cold, dispassionate history is written, I nevertheless prefer to accept this version than Delmer Daves’s.
Now I don’t want to make this post too long but I do think it is worth a brief excursion to say a little about the life of the real Captain Jack. The true story (as far as one can glean it) would have made a much better movie than Drum Beat.
Apart from Dee Brown, there are other sources: Captain Jack was a central character in Terry Johnston's historical novel Devil's Backbone: The Modoc War, 1872-3 (1991); and in Arthur Quinn's non-fiction work, Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War (1997).
Captain Jack’s real name was Kintpuash or Strikes the Water Brashly and he was born c 1837, so would have been in his mid-30s at the time of the so-called Modoc War. He seems to have been quite pro-white in a general way, arguing for co-existence and trade. He reluctantly signed the treaty under which the Modocs were sent north from their homeland to the territory of their traditional rivals, the Klamaths. It was not a good place for them to be, and promised supplies did not arrive. In 1865 Kintpuash led his people back to their home, cautioning them, especially the hotheads, not to cause trouble with the whites. But the Army rounded them up and returned them to the Klamath lands with promises. Nothing improved.
Kintpuash, known to the whites as Captain Jack, in 1864
In April 1870 Kintpuash led a band of about 180 Modocs to the Tule Lake area. The Indian Bureau warned him to return. Kintpuash asked for a reservation in traditional Modoc lands and the Bureau thought this request reasonable but the local whites opposed granting any land at all to the Indians and the Army was assigned the duty of removing the Modocs back to the north by force.
In November 1872 cavalry under Major James Jackson ordered the Modocs, starting with their leader, to lay down their carbines, and Kintpuash hesitated but did it. The others followed, but one, known to the whites as Scarfaced Charley, refused to give over his pistol. Hot words were exchanged, Scarfaced and an Army lieutenant both drew and fired. Neither was hit but the Modocs made a rush for their piled-up guns and the cavalry commander ordered his men to open fire. There was a sharp fight and the cavalry retreated, leaving one dead and seven wounded on the field. The Modocs headed for sanctuary in the caves and ravines of the California Lava Beds.
There now enters the story Hooker Jim. He was one of the group that might be described as die-hards or even extremists, with little political sense or caution in him. On the way to the lava beds he and his band of about thirteen Modocs killed twelve white settlers in revenge for a lethal attack on his camp. Hooker Jim was defensive and truculent but Kintpuash now knew the soldiers would never leave them alone and indeed in January 1873 Bluecoats were sighted, a force of 225 regulars and 104 Volunteers, with howitzers.
Kintpuash was for negotiating but Hooker Jim and his crew spoke out loudly for attack, and carried the day. In the ensuing fight the soldiers were routed. The Modocs recovered valuable arms, ammunition and rations from the field.
At the end of February Kintpuash’s cousin, Winema, who was married to white man Frank Riddle and called herself Toby Riddle (played by Marisa Pavan in the movie) came to the lava beds and she brought her husband and other whites to arrange a parley with the peace commissioners.
The members of the commission were Alfred B Meacham, who had once been the Modocs’ agent in Oregon (not in the film), a California clergyman named Eleazar Thomas (Richard Gaines in Drum Beat, played as rather a simpleton), and LS Dyar, a sub-agent from the Klamath reservation (the excellent Frank Ferguson on celluloid). Overseeing the whole affair was General ERS Canby (Warner Anderson), who had fought Manuelito’s Navajo band twelve years before.
The Modocs were assured that Hooker Jim and his group would be arrested but not hanged; rather, they would be sent to Indian Territory in the south. They surrendered. But once in the Army camp, Hooker Jim was threatened with hanging by settlers and it appeared that the commission had exceeded its authority by amnestying his men; the Indians fled back to the lava beds. Sherman was in no mood to compromise. He ordered Canby to use force so “that no other reservation for them will be necessary except graves.” That’s Sherman for you.
Delmer Daves: why did he make such a bad film after such a good one?
Now I really must cut a long story short: Hooker Jim and Co. continued to press for fighting, Kintpuash for talk. In a famous scene, one of Hooker Jim’s men threw a woman’s shawl over Kintpuash, calling him a “fish-hearted woman.” He was forced to agree to try to kill Canby. On Good Friday, 1873 a final parley took place, in which all parties were supposed to be unarmed, though the Modocs had pistols concealed and Meacham and Dyar had derringers in their pockets. No progress was made in the talks, both sides grew exasperated, Kintpuash drew his pistol, and although the gun at first misfired, the second shot killed Canby outright. One of Hooker Jim’s men killed Mr. Thomas. Winema/Toby saved Meacham’s life by knocking a Modoc pistol aside. Dyar and Riddle escaped in the confusion.
Three days later mortars pounded the lava beds but when the soldiers overran the stronghold they found it empty. Kintpuash and his band had slipped away in the night. The Army employed 72 mercenary Tenino Indians to track them, but Kintpuash ambushed the advance guard and nearly wiped it out. Still, it was only a matter of time.
Hooker Jim, evidently a bad egg, then abandoned Kintpuash, leaving him with 37 warriors to fight off a thousand soldiers, and surrendered to the Army, agreeing to help track Captain Jack down in return for amnesty. Kintpuash was finally cornered with the last three braves who had stayed with him to the end.
Captain Jack or Kintpuash, on the eve of his execution
There was a ‘trial’, though the Modocs had no legal counsel and could speak little or no English. The gallows was already being built as the trial went on, so there was no doubt as to the outcome. Captain Jack/Kintuash was hanged on October 3. His body was secretly disinterred afterwards and embalmed, and became a fairground attraction, admission ten cents. Hooker Jim and the rest of the band were sent to Indian Territory. Most of them, including Hooker Jim, were dead before, in 1909, the government relented and the survivors were allowed back home. There were 51.
Well, sorry to have been so long-winded but I thought you’d like the story. It isn’t very much like the one we get in Drum Beat…
Getting back to that film to conclude, it could have been set up for Ladd to fall for Toby (though she’d have to die of course) but ‘miscegenation’ was not on the cards this time, as it had been in Broken Arrow, so a white woman is invented for the love interest, Nancy Meek (Audrey Dalton). There’s a quite hilarious scene in which the couple embrace and Nancy has a daring speech full of double-entendre. She proposes obliquely to McKay and says she needs someone who knows how to plow, and how to plant seed, nudge nudge. It’s all too much for Ladd, who could never do physical romance scenes, and he is rescued by someone calling him to HQ.
Once again Daves’s beloved rivers are used as settings for key scenes, such as when the stagecoach is attacked by Modocs (the same setting was used when Geronimo attacked the stage in Broken Arrow) or the climactic hand-to-hand fight between Captain Jack and McKay.
J Peverell Marley photographed Drum Beat in CinemaScope color and he was the equal of Ernest Palmer in Broken Arrow. Both were shot in Arizona - rather curious in the case of Drum Beat because the story was all about the Modocs in Oregon, but there we are. Visually, the film is superb.
Victor Young did the score of the movie and pretty standard it is, not to say corny. “Indian” music greets every appearance of a Modoc and there is slushy stuff for the Ladd/Audrey Dalton scenes.
Strother Martin is in it. Elisha Cook Jr. is the wicked gun-runner and Robert Keith and Rodolfo Acosta have bit parts. But with Ladd in the lead and Bronson as Captain Jack the picture was pretty well doomed from the start.
Stick to Broken Arrow, pards.