Apache Drums (1951)
The Road to Spanish Boot
For the most "Apache Drums" is your standard 50s western, a cliche filled movie which has cowboys, Indians and a romantic subplot. But there is something about this little western which is better than the norm and it is a mixture of character depth and fear which takes you by surprise because everything about this 75 minute western screams routine. And whilst "Apache Drums" suffers from what is a cop out of an ending the build up to it will have you glued to your seats.
Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally - Winchester '73) is a gambler and not a law abiding citizen which is why after he kills a man in self defence the Mayor of Spanish Boot, Joe Madden (Willard Parker), orders him to leave although Sam believes that Joe wants him gone because Joe fancies Sally (Coleen Gray - Red River), his girl. But on heading out Sam encounters the carnage left by an Indian attack and returns to warn the town, the trouble is that after a lifetime of law breaking Sam has a bad name and no matter how good his intentions are there is plenty of bad blood.
For me there are 3 parts to "Apache Drums" and the first part is the most routine although pivotal because it sets up the character dynamics. In this opening we discover that Sam having witnessed his honest Pa die broke has vowed not to do the same and so is a law unto himself. We also discover that he and Sally are an item of sorts although Sally wants him to go straight but we also discover that Joe whilst not openly jealous of Sam and Sally could easily be fond of the pretty young woman. But we also learn about a 4th character, the fire & brimstone Rev. Griffin who has a very black & white view, Indians are the devil and bad guys can't change their ways.
Now having set up the characters and at the same time set up the story of Sam returning to warn the town of nearby Indians we get the first interesting part as the men including Rev. Griffin head off to a nearby creek to get water when the town's well is polluted by a dead body. The interesting aspect is when the men come under attack it is the Rev and Sam who end up fighting off the attacking Indians whilst the men with water return to town and we get not so much deep discussions between the two men alone but a general understanding of each other. It allows both the characters to grow as with death almost inevitable Sam sort of confesses to Griffin over his wants and motives establishing a good side to him.
But it is the third part of "Apache Drums" where it delivers the biggest surprise because whilst it takes the cliche of the town coming under attack and everyone holed up in the church the atmosphere is brilliant. There is some animosity, there is fear and there is panic and the level of fear really brings this final section to life rather than any moments of action. It's not perfect, there are some corny moments in this ending and a scene which sees the men try and drown out the noise of the Apache's drums by singing "Men of Harlech" borders on the corny, but that is more to do with camera angles.
The daft thing is that despite having character depth as well as atmosphere the actual characters and acting is quite forgettable. In truth whilst the three main actors are Stephen McNally, Coleen Gray and Willard Parker the most memorable performance comes from Arthur Shields because his full on fire & brimstone Rev. Griffin grabs your attention.
What this all boils down to is that "Apache Drums" is for the most a routine 50s western, the sort which dominated cinema at the time. But it is also one of the better ones because it has characters, interactions and atmosphere which makes it more than just an action piece.
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