Monday, September 17, 2012

Movie Monday: Apache Drums

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This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1951 western Apache Drums!

Apache Drums
is no ordinary western. It was the last film to be produced by the legendary Val Lewton, who of course is most famous for his horror films, like Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, and (my personal favorite) The Seventh Victim. After completing his soon-to-be-legendary run at RKO, Lewton moved on to other studios, with Apache Drums inadvertently being the last movie that bears his stamp.

We'll get into the hows and whys of this movie in a moment, but right now let's see just how well the words "Val Lewton" and "western" go together:

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The town of Spanish Boot is undergoing a makeover, away from the typical lawless western town to something more respectable, the kind of place you can bring your family up in. The only problem--well, the main problem--is inveterate gambler and scoundrel Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally), who we are introduced to while he's doling out some hot lead to someone who has done him wrong:
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Sam claims the shooting was in self-defense, but the town's Mayor (Willard Parker) is having none of it. He wants Sam out of town, and organizes with the town preacher (Arthur Shields) to force Sam to leave, in an effort to clean up Spanish Boot. Their efforts don't end with Sam--they also buy-off the local madam (Ruthelma Stevens) and send her and her girls out of town:
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Complicating the issue between the Mayor and Sam is they're both sweet on the same woman, Sally (Colleen Gray), so the Mayor has even more motivation to get Sam out of the way. After pleading his case, and failing, Sam leaves, only to find the wagon train of prostitutes (now there's an idea for a movie!) who left ahead of him slaughtered by Apaches. The only survivor is their stagecoach driver, who is surprisingly still wearing his bowler hat. "Leave it on...they took my hair" is what he's able to say as he dies.

All this is a set-up for a long set-piece which takes up the final third of the film: after Sam returns to warn them of what's coming, the Apaches attack the town, forcing everyone--men, women, and children--into a small church where they are cornered. Night falls, and the air is filled the sounds of the ominous apache drums:
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The Apaches kill a young man who tries to escape (James Best, Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard) and dump his body in the local well, poisoning the water supply, tightening the noose on everyone in Spanish Boot.

Everyone tries to keep the spirits of the young children up, by doing magic and singing songs (one song heard in the movie is "The Bells of St. Clements", a song sung by Kim Hunter in Lewton's The Seventh Victim). But the Apaches get ever closer, closer, closer, until:
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After fighting off one attack, the Apaches begin to burn the town down all around them--all the lights go out, with the only illumination coming from the flames outside. The Mayor volunteers to go outside and try and bargain with the Apaches, and then everyone inside hear a knock at the door. Then the voice of the Mayor is heard, telling them not to open the door. But they can't help themselves:
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This is an amazing sequence, tense and scary. It doesn't quite come off--it's awkwardly staged, which I can only think is the fault of director Hugo Fregonese. I can only imagine what Lewton's horror directors, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, or Mark Robson would have done with this.

Still, this whole final sequence in the church is superb--all the time, the we hear the Apache drums, signifying death to those in Spanish Boot:
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There's one final battle between the townsfolk and the Apaches, and the film ends on a lighthearted note, a callback scene involving a donkey and its mother. The End!


Apache Drums is no classic--in many ways its a conventional western, with somewhat bland characters. But the final third, with the Apaches attacking, is so well staged and tense that it makes the film a true pleasure, especially for Val Lewton fans. There are so many Lewton hallmarks here, recalling his previous films, that it was clear he hadn't lost his touch, even after the years of creative setbacks following his leaving RKO in 1946. He apparently had a hand in the screenplay as well (based off a book, Stand at Spanish Boot), adding little bits of wry humor that give the film an extra edge, hinting at things that could not be explicitly stated in movies at the time (the dialog between the Reverend and the Madam being a particularly fine example).

Apache Drums shows that Val Lewton was capable of bringing his particular brand of movie genius to a non-horror movie, turning what could have been a routine oater into something unusual and memorable. Sadly, Lewton died shortly after the movie premiered, making it the last time he would have his name on. Apache Drums is a melancholy symbol of What Could Have Been.

Probably due to its lack of stars, Apache Drums has never been released on DVD or for streaming; but you can find it if you really want to. If you're a Lewton fan, it's worth the effort!


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