Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Drum (London Films/United Artists, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Drum, a 1937 production by the Korda brothers (producer Alexander, director Zoltan and set designer Vincent) and their company London Films, whose studio was located in Denham (Charles joked, “That’s like having a company called ‘Los Angeles Films’ build their studios in Bakersfield!”). They were Hungarian émigrés and they tended to hire other Hungarians whenever possible, including screenwriter Lajos Biró (who worked on this film) and composer Miklós Rósza (who didn’t, but who got his start in film scoring on other Korda productions). The Drum began life as a 1937 novel by A. E. W. Mason, whose 1902 adventure The Four Feathers had made his international reputation with a tale glorifying British imperialism in the Third World; The Four Feathers had already been filmed successfully three times (1915, 1921 and 1929, the last a semi-documentary version from Paramount co-directed by documentarians Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and studio hack Lothar Mendes) and the Kordas would take it up themselves in 1939 for what’s probably the best known film of it (more recent versions include a TV-movie from 1978 and a feature film from 2002), and in the meantime Alexander Korda was ransacking Mason’s more recent output for other stories he could film, including Fire Over England (1936), a tale of British resistance to the Spanish invasion in 1588 that was the first film in which Laurence Olivier and his wife-to-be Vivien Leigh co-starred.

The Drum got made mainly because of the sensational success of another Korda production, Elephant Boy (1937), which had been co-directed by documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty as an attempt to marry his sort of real-life filmmaking to a studio production and a pre-set story, Rudyard Kipling’s Toomai of the Elephants. To play Toomai, Flaherty scouted a real-life “elephant boy,” who’d taken over his late father’s job as mahout (elephant driver) at age nine, whose full name is given in various sources as Sabu Dastagir and Selar Shaik Sabu, and signed him for the role. Flaherty’s biographer Arthur Calder-Marshall noted that during his career his focus shifted from male authority figures like Nanook and Tiger King in Man of Aran to cute young boys, partly because “a beautiful boy, like a beautiful dog, went straight to the heart of a very large public. It provided a way of avoiding in his sort of picture the conventional love interest which the exhibitors wanted.” When Flaherty’s rushes for Elephant Boy arrived back in Denham, Alexander Korda was disappointed in the movie itself — he ended up reshooting half of it in England and scouring London for suitably dark-skinned extras to play East Indians in crowd scenes — but he immediately saw what he had in Sabu, signed him to a contract and got him lessons to improve his English (his part in Elephant Boy had been virtually silent).

“The studio went wild about him,” Flaherty’s wife Frances recalled later. “His acting amazed them. They insured his life for 50,000 pounds and set their best writers to work writing for him the story of another film.” That story was The Drum, based on Mason’s 1937 novel (and actually set in 1937 — before I saw this film I’d always assumed it took place in the 1890’s, the time of The Four Feathers and also of the “great game” between Britain and Russia over control of Afghanistan, in which Dr. John H. Watson was wounded in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story), “adapted” by Lajos Biró and with screenplay credit going to three British writers: Arthur Wimperis, Patrick Kirwan and Hugh Gray. It’s a quite typical tale of the time, essentially a 93-minute propaganda infomercial promoting British imperialism in general and their (supposedly) God-given right to rule India in particular. Sabu plays Prince Azim of the fictitious kingdom of Tokot (“played” by the principality of Chitral, whose ruler, the Mehtar, gets a special-thanks credit for allowing Zoltan Korda and his crew to film there) in the northwest border region — what is now the Northwest Frontier Provinces of Pakistan and a place in which today, as when this movie was made, there is virtually no government other than the traditional tribes and where people seeking to wage terrorist campaigns against the imperialist occupiers can hide out and do so with virtual impunity (and where the U.S. is currently trying to combat this by sending drone aircraft, often killing innocent civilians while the terrorists themselves escape unharmed and thank us for the propaganda opportunity to do more recruitment).

Just before the film begins, Azim’s father has been murdered by his brother, Prince Ghul (Raymond Massey), whose idea is to unite all the small states along the Indian-Afghan border into a military confederation, stage a sneak attack against the British garrison at Tokot and eventually drive the British occupiers out of India — an ambition a modern audience might actually see as laudable if Massey weren’t playing him as so much the out-and-out villain, his face slathered in makeup and coated with phony whiskers to make him look authentically Indian and his acting over several tops. Azim is determined to warn the British because he’s befriended several of them —including Col. Carruthers (Roger Livesey, actually turning in a quite good performance that makes one forget he got most of his roles as consolation prizes when producers couldn’t get Laurence Olivier!) and his wife (Valerie Hobson, considerably spunkier and more independent than she was in her best-known credit as Elizabeth in The Bride of Frankenstein, where for all the perversity, wry wit and Code subversion in the other parts she was still pretty much playing the normal damsel-in-distress of a horror film), as well as a red-haired kid his own age, Bill Holder (Desmond Tester), who plays drums both in the regimental band and in a dance orchestra the people running the British base have organized for their own entertainment (and whose leader is an irascible Scot who insists that Holder keep a strict beat and not throw any jazz licks into his playing). Though he was only 14 Sabu comes off as quite sexy in this film, going topless throughout most of it and showing enough of a basket he even looks hot through a shalwar kameez, the name of the loose-fitting, billowing pants that are standard male attire in that part of the world.

The Drum — oddly retitled Drums (plural) when it was released in the U.S., though there are enough drummers in the film (including a whole corps of them that accompanies the British army on the march) that one could make a case for giving it a plural title — is one of those mediocre films that could have been a good deal better: if the British weren’t shown as virtually omniscient (they have the entire native resistance so honeycombed with spies — including some Brits who have acquired suntans, grown beards and adopted native dress so they can “pass” — that no sooner has Sabu leaked the plan of Ghul’s attack and the British commandant has told him he won’t send an army to Tokot until he gets confirmation, the confirmation arrives from another British spy) and if Ghul had been a more ambiguous character, credibly posing as a freedom fighter even though he’s really a thug. As it is, The Drum is of interest mainly for Sabu’s child-man performance (he was virtually always playing a boy more mature than his chronological age — and perhaps part of the inspiration for casting him as an orphan who’d had to take over from a dead father at a tender age was that he had had to do that himself — and his career started to go downhill when he grew up and his visible age started catching up to his characterizations), for Valerie Hobson’s remarkably assertive characterization and for the gorgeous cinematography by Osmond Borradaile (who had shot Elephant Boy and who did the scenes shot in India) and Georges Périnal (who did the scenes shot in England) in three-strip Technicolor — so far as I know, the first time a British producer used it. The Drum is an O.K. movie that could have been a lot better, but given that it was made for a British company for an Anglo-American audience, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s an uncritical paean to British imperialism and lacks the ambiguity with which one would expect a similar story to be handled today.