Drum Beat is a solid and generally forgotten western telling the story of the Modoc War in 1872 and 1873.
A well-known and respected Indian fighter, Johnny MacKay (Alan Ladd) has been tasked with a mission from President Grant (Hayden Rorke). In the Oregon territory, the Modoc tribe has left the reservation and causing problems for the white settlers. Johnny is hired as a peace commissioner with the hopes of both the white settlers and and Modoc Indians signing a treaty that will bring a halt to all the violence. He is skeptical of the two sides working together, but Johnny travels back west hoping to meet with Captain Jack (Charles Bronson), the chief of this group of Modocs. The Indians are less than cooperative though, and peace won't come easily.
From director Delmer Daves, this is a BIG western. It isn't an epic that runs 3-hours with intermission and a cast of thousands, but it is nonetheless big. It was filmed in Cinerama and takes full advantage of the on-location shooting in Sonora. You can see and feel the immensity of the frontier as the settlers tangle with the warring Indians. The developing story is somewhat familiar in that sense, but it never feels dull. Yes, there are scenes that rely solely on the natural background, long, uninterrupted scenes of riders moving across a horizon. At 111 minutes, it is a tad long in the tooth, but it's not a deal breaker. Victor Young's score is appropriately sweeping without overpowering anything on-screen, and thankfully the Ballad of Drum Beat is only played over the opening credits.
With Daves at the helm, the story is just solid. He's an underrated, underappreciated director who was consistent throughout his career, directing one excellent movie after another. The story is familiar here -- settlers/whites vs. Indians -- but it doesn't feel familiar. Credit to Ladd and Bronson there. I really liked Ladd's performance as Johnny MacKay, an Indian fighter who's good at what he does but doesn't necessarily enjoy it. Bronson as an Indian seems like a bad choice, but that too works. It borders on a caricature but never goes too far. He looks out for the best interest of his tribe...at first...only to get swept up in the glory of fighting. Their scenes together are surprisingly good, especially their final scene in the closing minutes. The fight leading up to that scene ain't too shabby either.
An ensemble cast of familiar faces backs up Ladd and Bronson, Audrey Dalton leading the way as Nancy, an Easterner who's moved west to help the cause and surprise, surprise...falls for Ladd's Johnny! Who saw that coming?!? Oh, everybody? My bad. Marisa Pavan and Anthony Caruso rise above stereotypes as Toby and Mannock, two peaceful Modocs working with Johnny and not against him. Robert Keith plays Bill, an older frontiersman with a grudge while Rodolfo Acosta and Perry Lopez play two of Bronson's warriors. Look for recognizable character actors Willis Bouchey, Elisha Cook Jr., Strother Martin and Denver Pyle in small parts.
As a quasi-western buff, I do have to poke some holes in this story. A title card starts with 'This is true except for the fictional characters and storylines needed to dramatize the truth.' So basically a cop-out. A true story until the truth isn't entertaining enough. Sonora, Arizona does not look like Oregon in the least, and the Modocs look and are portrayed more like Apaches than any other tribe. Just weird observations that ran through my head. Still a good movie, especially a large-scale battle on a Modoc fortress on an impenetrable rock formation, with an interesting cast.
Drum Beat <---credits/opening (1954): ***/****