Thanks to a release of a recent DVD collection of four Audie Murphy movies, Turner Classic Movies did a service to western fans with a night devoted to the World War II hero turned movie star. Only one of the films shown is actually in the collection, but three Murphy westerns dotted the schedule, and not necessarily his more well-known flicks. In other words, expect a couple reviews over the next couple days of Murphy films, starting with 1953’s Drums Across the River.
I go back and forth on 1950s westerns, but when done right and not handled in a glossy whitewash, they can be a lot of fun. Just look to the Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher westerns. With wave after wave of westerns made on a small scale hitting theaters, these movies needed bad guys, and the 1950s produced a lot of them. They aren’t instantly recognizable names now over 60 years later, but for a decade they parlayed their bad guy look into a long list of movies. One of the best at playing bad was Lyle Bettger, chief baddie in ‘Drums’ and Murphy’s main rival.
Working with his father (Walter Brennan) running a freight company in Crown City, a western mining town, Frank Brannon (Murphy) agrees to take on a job transporting goods to a mine that needs supplies. Along for the ride is a handful of cowboys looking to help out, including a man named Walker (Bettger), who has some other plans. Walker intends to start a war with the peaceful Ute Indians in the territory, all with hopes of getting a chance at mining gold out of the hills and mountains promised to the Indians. Brannin manages to negotiate a peace with the Utes after Walker’s failed attempt, but this fight is far from over.
I’ve been a fan of Audie Murphy since I first saw him in the autobiographical film To Hell and Back, the story of his exploits in World War II that earned him worldwide fame. Not always remembered with the John Waynes, Randolph Scotts and Clint Eastwoods, Murphy is nonetheless one of the all-time best western stars. As an actor, he didn’t have the greatest range, but as a western hero, he was strong, loyal, honest, trustworthy and tough as nails. You just know with a Murphy character that he’s not going to take any crap from the bad guys, and in the end, he’s going to win out and get the girl. As the western hero, he’s able to stay in that comfort zone as an actor, and as was the case here, he rarely disappoints.
What is cool about Murphy – and a few other action heroes – is that he does a majority of his stunts whether it be riding his horse at full speed chasing the bad guys or taking part in a knock down, drag ‘em out fistfight. That’s what works here with Drums. Starting with Murphy in the lead, this movie has a nasty streak right up its back, impressive stuff considering it was released in the early 1950s. Two fistfights are absolutely brutal affairs that don’t feel choreographed or overly staged, just two guys beating the hell out of each other. Murphy’s Brannin later dispatches a gunslinger by whipping him across the face and then shooting him twice in the stomach. You don’t see that too often in many pre-1960 westerns.
More than just the honest look at the brutality of the western life, this is a fun western, and one I enjoyed a lot surprisingly enough. Director Nathan Juran films his story on location for the most part in the hills and mountains of Red Rock Canyon State Park in California. It is a beautiful movie that features some familiar locations and some new ones. The story also treats Indians as human beings too, not just mindless savage killing machines. Later gaining fame as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, Jay Silverheels plays Taos, a Ute chief who strikes a deal with Murphy’s Brannin. With some twists and turns as to what everyone is up to, the story keeps you guessing enough to make it always entertaining, not easily settling for the typical route.
In one of his many 1950s western bad guy roles, Bettger is a gem as he so often was. These westerns weren’t interested in villains and shades of gray. There was black and white with nothing in between. So because of that, these bad guys are bad news with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Bettger revels in these roles, slimy, smooth villains who will no doubt meet a nasty fate in the end. As for the rest of the cast, screen veteran Brennan has a good chemistry with Murphy even if his part doesn’t require much after about half the movie. Lisa Gaye plays Jennie, the love interest with Mara Corday playing Sue, the saloon girl in cahoots with Bettger’s Walker. Hugh O'Brian plays Morgan, a hired gun who would like nothing more than a shot at Murphy in another part that has some fun with the over the top bad guy. It’s a fun western though, one that rises above so many average westerns from the 1950s. Well worth looking into.
Drums Across the River (1953): ***/****