The Ute's Dispute
For a western which is just short of 80 minutes "Drums Across the River" crams a lot in, we have a main storyline about some greedy white cowboys trying to steal Indian land or at least their gold. But surrounding that main storyline we have elements of racial tension and understanding, a touch of romance, treachery and of course being a western plenty of action. As you can guess in a movie which is relatively short none of this has any depth but it makes "Drums Across the River" an entertaining western which adds another layer to the story every 10 minutes or so.
Once a thriving Gold mining town Crown City is on the verge of becoming a ghost town as the Gold is all gone, with only the land belonging to the Ute Indian untouched. Desperate to keep going a group of men lead by the crooked Frank Walker (Lyle Bettger - Carnival Story) head on to the Ute land to take what they want and joining them is Gary Bannon (Audie Murphy - Ride Clear of Diablo) who following his mother's death has hated the Ute. But not only does Gary discover that the Ute are good people he also learns that Frank will stop at nothing to get his hands on that gold even if it means setting up Gary and his father Sam (Walter Brennan - Best of the Badmen) as well as starting a war with the Ute.
So as already mentioned "Drums Across the River" is very much a movie of layers and the first layer is all about the men from Crown City, a city built on gold mining but with gold running out is quickly becoming a ghost town. As such we have them wanting to stake claim to gold which is across the river on Indian land and in typical fashion we have a group of these men who will lie, fight and steal to get their hands on it. This leads to the first confrontation and we learn that Gary Brannon hates the Indians because of the death of his mother despite his father having made peace with them. This actually leads to a deeper understanding as through various troubles Gary actually becomes a friend to the Indians and this is another 50s western which aims to portray Native Americans as more than just savages.
That alone covers the first 20 minutes of "Drums Across the River" and ends with Gary brokering peace between the Indians and the people of Crown City following the ill advised attempts to steal their land and gold. What happens after that is a group of men who don't want peace and will go to any length to get the gold and in order to do so try and set up Gary and his father Sam whilst also starting a war with the Indians in the process. All of which is entertaining because as already mentioned there is basically layer upon layer of storyline, little of it has any depth but it makes it more interesting than just cowboys versus Indians. And to be honest there are a couple of reasonable twists thrown in aw well, none of which are complex but again makes the storyline work better than your average 50s western.
But whilst these layers make the storyline more interesting much of what you see can only be called standard. There are gunfights, there are brawls, there are dangerous knife fights and some fast horse riding. It sadly means that "Drums Across the River" ends up coming across as just being a mass produced western which doesn't really do justice to the story. Don't get me wrong as this sort of action is entertaining but you've basically seen it all before.
As for the acting well "Drums Across the River" is a movie built around Audie Murphy as Gary Bannon being the handsome young hero, the ordinary guy who saves the day. But like with the action we have seen Murphy do this sort of performance before and again he does it well, it is a solid Audie Murphy performance but it is not that memorable. But then it is the same with all the cast be it Walter Brennan as his father Sam, Lyle Bettger as the nefarious Frank or Hugh O'Brian as the evil Morgan. The same can be said of the beautiful women who appear with Lisa Gaye sadly underused as Jennie the stereotypical love interest.
What this all boils down to is that "Drums Across the River" despite having a reasonable storyline ends up being a stereotypical 50s western. And it is a shame as the storyline has a nice series of layers and portrays Native Americans as being more than just savages but what gets served up, the action and the characters is all so ordinary.