Distant Drums is essentially a remake by Raoul Walsh of Raoul Walsh’s Objective Burma, a WWII drama with Errol Flynn. Objective Burma is the better film, but Distant Drums definitely has some things going for it, as well as some things not going for it.
The film is set during the Second Seminole War in the 1840s – not that the film especially gives one a historical sense of the time. It is narrated by the mildly disposable Lieutenant Tufts (Richard Webb), who has been assigned by General Zachary Taylor to bring a boat to Lake Okeechobee to ferry Captain Quincy Wyatt (Gary Cooper) and his men across the lake so they can attack an old Spanish fort held by mercenaries who are selling guns to the Seminoles. But once they blow up the fort – and rescue a few hostages – their escape via the lake is cut off by the Seminoles, led by Chief Ocala (Raymond Kentro), who seems to have a personal vendetta against Wyatt. Without access to the lake, they have no choice but to head into the swampy Everglades, with Ocala hot on the trail.
On the way, there is some beautiful Technicolor scenery from Florida (it was filmed on location in the Everglades) as well as a faintly dull romance between the rescued Judy (Mari Aldon) and Wyatt. What makes the film exciting are the action sequences. Action films are not usually my thing, but I’ve always found Raoul Walsh to be a consistent exception.
Watching Distant Drums gave me a very strong sense of deja vu. It was not only because it was a remake of Objective Burma, but so many other little things reminded me of later blockbusters. The transition wipes: Star Wars. The men running in the high grass: The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The heroes in canoes while their enemies run on shore in pursuit with drums beating: Lord of the Rings. And as the title suggests, there is a lot of use of drums, often in place of a score, and the effects is rather creepy (once again, as in Lord of the Rings). There is also a completely awesome knife fight battle in the water that didn’t remind me of anything (except those single combat battles of the heroes replete in “The Iliad”, though none that I know of ever took place under water).
Gary Cooper is perfectly fine as Wyatt, but there’s not much to the character. He was married to a Creek princess, who was murdered by soldiers, and he has a son he adores. Now he is just doing his job and is something of a superhero tracker/soldier (according to Cooper’s stunt double, he did nearly all his own stunts). Mari Aldon as Judy is a “cracker” who is pretending to be a lady and has a servant (slave? – this is the 1840s) who brushes her hair and bathes her feet in the swamps. Her servant (slave?) is named Amelia (Angelita McCall) and she doesn’t get a single line of dialogue. It was puzzling because Amelia seemed rather resentful of Judy and Judy seems to barely acknowledge her existence. It was such an odd relationship, I couldn’t figure out why Amelia was in the story and very much wished we’d learned more about her. I like to to think that at the end Amelia has enough of Judy and simply leaves her to her own devices (we do see her walking away with the soldiers). Judy can brush her own hair in the swamp!
Arthur Hunnicutt plays Monk, a trapper and good friend of Wyatt. Nobody else particularly stands out, though. Character development is not the film’s strength. The film is also noted for the debut of the Wilhelm Scream, which I confess to not having heard of before. Screams were recorded for when a man was dragged under the swamp by an alligator (and for a few other catastrophes and deaths) and was later used repeatedly in other films as stock sound affects (even in Star Wars and Indiana Jones – more deja vu).
I can’t think of anything else to say. It’s an entertaining adventure with a sense of tension that keeps you engaged throughout with some sensational Technicolor cinematography. It’s often called a western, though it certainly isn’t a typical one, but that is partly what makes it fun. I also enjoyed the score by Max Steiner.
The restored dvd and blu-ray look much better than this trailer.