Friday, July 22, 2016

Drums in the Deep South (King Brothers Productions/RKO, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I picked to screen last night was Drums in the Deep South — an odd title because neither the film itself nor its soundtrack depicts anyone playing drums — a 1951 “B”-plus Western set during the Civil War made by producers Maurice and Frank King and released through RKO. It was shot in Supercinecolor (the follow-up to the Cinecolor process of the early 1930’s, which managed to photograph blue before Technicolor did but did not have the vibrancy of three-strip Technicolor at his best) — though the print we were watching, a public-domain download, had faded to green and brown, looking more like a color film of today than either Techncolor or Cinecolor (“super” or not) at their best. The film began life as a story by Hollister Noble (whose only other credits on are for the stories for Errol Flynn’s 1952 film Mara Maru and another 1952 production, Mutiny) that got turned into a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Sidney Harmon. The most interesting behind-the-camera credit by far on Drums in the Deep South was its production designer and director, William Cameron Menzies, who got his start in films in the early 1920’s and designed the spectacular sets for the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. fantasy The Thief of Baghdad. In 1931 he became a director and eventually became known for movies that were visually spectacular but a bit dramatically static, including the 1932 Chandu the Magician (a potentially great movie let down by its dull cast — the magnificent Bela Lugosi as the villain excepted — and overshadowed by the much cheaper but also considerably better serial sequel The Return of Chandu, in which Lugosi got promoted from villain to hero and totally out-acted Edmund Lowe as Chandu), the 1936 Things to Come (another magnificent-looking movie, fascinating in parts but laden down by the didacticism of its screenwriter, as well as author of the source novel, H. G. Wells), and later sci-fi cheapies like the original Invaders from Mars (1953) and The Maze (1953).

Menzies’ most famous production designer/art director (the two mean essentially the same thing: the person who designs the sets and works with the director to determine the overall visual “look” of a film) credit was on the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind, and since that’s also a story set during (and immediately after) the Civil War in the South — indeed, both films take place in Georgia and center around a big plantation — comparisons between Gone With the Wind and Drums in the Deep South are inevitable. The problem is they aren’t very flattering: Drums in the Deep South is only 85 minutes long (Gone With the Wind is nearly four hours) and has some interesting actors, but James Craig is hardly in the same league as Clark Gable (as MGM learned when they tried him and John Carroll as replacement Gables in the early 1940’s while the real one was in combat during World War II) and Barbara Payton, despite some genuine edginess in her performance (her best work in films was opposite James Cagney in the 1950 Warners gangster drama Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye) that showed her to be an actress of promise, was hardly comparable to Vivien Leigh. The story begins at the Georgia cotton plantation of Albert Monroe (Taylor Holmes) and his niece, Kathy Summers (Barbara Payton). One night in 1861 Kathy’s husband, Col. Braxton Summers (Craig Stevens), brings over two of his classmates from West Point, Major Will Denning from Boston (Guy Madison) and another Southerner from a nearby plantation, Major Clay Clayburn (James Craig, top-billed). The reunion is an edgy one because Clay once dated Kathy before the married Summers instead, and the Clayburn family went downhill — they lost their plantation because their father ran up so much debt he couldn’t pay it back — and Clay briefly claims to have regained his family’s land and fortune, but he quickly confesses to Kathy that he really didn’t and one wonders why he bothered to lie about it. The reunion gets even edgier when the plantation residents, including a lot of happy, contented Black sla- — oops, I mean servants —receive word that Fort Sumter has been fired on and the Civil War has started. Col. Summers goes off to fight with the Confederacy — and is never seen again in the entire film, though towards the end Kathy gets word that he survived the war — while Major Denning returns to Boston and ends up back in Georgia as a Union commander with General Sherman’s army. As for Clay, he becomes some sort of Confederate commando (where, oddly, his uniform isn’t the regulation grey but, through some quirk of Supercinecolor and/or the condition in which it’s survived, blue, albeit a light powder blue instead of the deep blue of the Union uniform). Three years pass, represented by a montage with dates spread across it, and then it’s 1864, Sherman is marching through Georgia and the Confederate command has figured out that the one place on his train route where he’s vulnerable to attack is Snake Gap, which just happens to be next to the Monroe plantation and is overlooked by a tall bluff called the Devil’s Mountain and, Charles and I were convinced, is actually the same Devil’s Tower in Wyoming that in 1977 was used as the meeting point between earthlings and the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Confederates realize that if they can get four 12-pound Brooke cannon on top of the mountain, they can shell the Union army’s oncoming trains, put them out of commission and thereby delay Sherman’s march by a month until he can come up with replacement supplies and another way of getting them to his men. The problem is how to get them up there, since the face of the Devil’s Mountain is virtually sheer. Only Clay, being from the neighborhood, knows that the inside of the mountain is honeycombed with caves that will provide a commando force of 20 men an opportunity to pull four cannon to the top, assemble them there and fire them at the Union trains. He picks a team of people who are all too aware that, because there’ll be no way to resupply them once they get to the top of the mountain, this is essentially a suicide mission. The cannon get dragged through the caves, though not without a few accidents — including a sequence in which one man nearly falls into a cavern and has to be pulled out with a rope — and one finally gets why William Cameron Menzies was interested in this story: he responded to the whole challenge of making a film set largely inside caves and keeping it interesting. Unfortunately, the cave sequences are by far the most exciting in the film; otherwise it’s a rather dull love triangle between Clay, Denning (who’s absent from the next 60 percent or so of the film after the opening sequence but suddenly returns as an officer with Sherman’s army and the challenge of knocking out the Confederate cannon atop Devil’s Mountain — for a while this starts to seem like The Guns of Navarone in the Civil War, though The Guns of Navarone wouldn’t be filmed for another decade) and Kathy, who gets threatened with rape by a Union officer occupying her home (her uncle shoots the guy before he can subject her to the Fate Worse Than Death, but is shot himself for his pains; later she sees a photo of her would-be assailant’s kids and is conscience-stricken enough to write a letter to his family back home in Michigan), sends signals to the Confederates on top of Devil’s Mountain what the Union officers bivouacking in her home are planning to do about the guns. The Union army brings in a 24-pound Dahlgren naval gun, intending to park it on the railroad tracks just out of range of the Confederate guns on the mountaintop so they can aim it at the top and take out the Confederate cannon, but the Confederates work a plan around that: they load their own cannon with double the usual amount of gunpowder, increasing the range but also making it more likely for the cannon to blow up when fired. To prevent the latter, they need to reinforce the cannon by wrapping them in wire — and Kathy figures out how to get them the wire: by taking it from the innards of her family’s piano. (One of the Union officers discovers this when he bangs the keys of the piano — and they make only the clunking noise of their mechanism, not musical sounds.)

Ultimately Major Denning, who remember also knows the area, says the way to get rid of the Confederate artillery is to blow up the mountain — given that it’s honeycombed with caves, it will collapse easily — only that means everyone inside as well as on top will be killed. Kathy asks Denning if she can make one last-ditch appeal to the men inside to surrender before they get blown up with the mountain, but she makes a b-i-i-i-g mistake: she dresses in a dark blue dress and gets picked off by one of the commandos who mistakes it for a Union Army uniform. With her dying breath she talks the other eight survivors of the original team into going down the mountain and emerging before Denning and his Union crew set off the charge — and she and Clay stay behind and get blown up for one of those bizarre “the lovers are united in death” endings that were all the rage during the Romantic era of culture that was going on during the Civil War but now just seem stupid. Drums in the Deep South is actually a pretty good idea for a movie, if you can forget how much better these tropes had been done again and again and again in earlier films, but Menzies’ direction is occasionally creative but shows the limitations of the strangulation-poor budget he was working with (for Invaders from Mars he planned the entire production in 3-D, including building sets with forced perspectives that would look especially good in 3-D, but just before he was scheduled to shoot he found that his producer didn’t have the money for a 3-D camera) and, aside from Payton (the only woman in the cast!), the acting leaves a lot to be desired. Also the plot has almost has many holes in it as the Devil’s Mountain itself — one energetic contributor put up five “Goofs” entries and all were about mistakes in the presentation of artillery (mostly saying that the guns mentioned in the dialogue couldn’t really do what the script showed or said they could do — though he got one point wrong which the film got right: he thought the Confederates were “double shotting” their guns, putting two cannonballs in each gun, which would reduce their range; in fact they were double-charging their guns, using one cannonball and twice the normal amount of gunpowder) — and overall Drums in the Deep South emerges as a pleasant time-filler, decent entertainment but also pretty forgettable, not good enough to be classic and not bad enough to be camp.