Distant Drums

Distant Drums

Starring Gary Cooper, Mari Aldon…

Please Note: Contains Plot Lines and Possible Spoilers.

Main Cast Includes: Legendary Gary Cooper (Captain Quincy Wyatt) with Mari Aldon (Judy), Richard Webb (Lieutenant Richard Tufts), Ray Teal (Mohair – Who also later played in Bonanza as the Sheriff Coffee), Arthur Hunnicutt (The Scout named Monk) with the bad Chief Ocala played by Larry Carper.

Released by Warner Brothers in 1951 (in Technicolor), and with incredibly beautiful scenery of the Florida Everglades. A B&W release of this movie in my opinion wouldn’t have done this picture justice; the backing landscape and wildlife would have suffered.

Directed by Raoul Walsh. The music throughout this movie matched the mood and scenery perfectly. Max Steiner had the perfect touch at matching the scene to a note. The scenery and landscapes of this film were superb from start to finish, from the crystal clear water of the lakes (used for a dual underwater by Captain Quincy and Chief Ocala near the end), to the deep Florida swamps rich with wildlife; from Alligators to birds and of course the mosquitoes.

The storyline of this of film is for the Military to go in under the command of Captain Wyatt (Gary Cooper), take over/blow up a Renegade Forte full of ammunition and weapons used for Gun running with the Seminole Indians. It is a long trip, but nothing Quincy’s men haven’t done before.

They are joined by Lieutenant Richard Tufts (Richard Webb), a Naval observer who was sent specially by command to go along on this mission. Arriving in a pressed uniform with a shiny sword on his belt, in the boat that will be later used to take Quincy’s men across the lake. He is escorted by Monk, Quincy’s Scout (played by Arthur Hunnicut) to meet Captain Wyatt. Before they meet, he is introduced to Captain Quincy’s (Gary Cooper) little boy. He is told by Monk that the boys mother was an Indian Princess, but had died. It is not until nearing the end of the movie we find out from Quincy, that she was killed by a drunk soldier who mistook her for an enemy.

After their introduction, Lieutenant Tufts is discouraged to then learn from Captain Quincy that the mission will comprise of only 40 men; not a Brigade (several thousand) which he believes to be the size needed for the job.

So the journey begins.

When they finally reach the forte in the cover of darkness, it turns out relatively easy to take. This opens the introduction for Judy character (played by Mari Olden), who is rescued from the Renegades, alongside several other hostages. After blowing up the forte (and alerting every Seminole in the area), they make their way back to the pickup point to join Tufts boat crew who will sail them back to Quincy’s island. It all seems to be going to plan until they reach the beach, only to find the Indians have now closed in too fast behind them. Now under fire and with no time to load everyone on the boat, Quincy makes the drastic decision to head for swamp. This is where the movie changes course and the scenery changes to the deep dark Florida everglades. In a time when nice air-conditioned sets, shrimp flown in daily and expensive bottled water were not so common on location, this harsh landscape for filming would have been tough on the actors.

I always enjoy watching this movie, and throughout the escape back home the soldiers are constantly chewing on corn. How that kept them going while drudging through a swamp for days, nothing but swamp water to drink, the Seminole Chief closing in and Alligators ready to take a piece of them on top, I don’t know, but it seemed to work. Too bad if you didn’t like corn!

Lieutenant Tufts joins Judy (Mari Aldon) on a log beside the water, and while he is regaling her with stories about his life, she in turn tells him of her ‘high class’ life back in Savannah. Not far away (and listening in) Quincy is dry shaving with a large knife, which creates a sound similar to stone rubbing on sandpaper. This makes Tufts feel inadequate in front of Judy, so he quickly excuses himself to test his dry skin with a knife also…he didn’t have much luck.

Judy has her own personal servant and portrays herself to be of much higher standing and class than she really is. Quincy hearing these stories being told by Judy to Tufts about her high class life back in Savannah, calls her on it. He knows where she is really from, the same part of Georgia he is. Sensing an opportunity of this new friendship, Judy has it in her mind that Quincy maybe able to help her with some plans she has to get even with a man back home. He feels otherwise.

Deeper and deeper in the swamp they head, and it is realized they need to split up to make every possible chance of someone getting back alive. One group leaves under the guide of Sergeant Shane, the other under Captain Wyatt. Captain Wyatt’s group stay behind and begin the massive task of chopping down trees to shape into rafts. Now that task in an Alligator filled swamp with hundreds of Seminole Indians on their trail, only with knives and axes would be very difficult under the circumstances, but this is a Gary Cooper classic movie, so we don’t ask questions! After some more interactions with the Seminole just before take off, they finally break free (but only after losing more men in the process) and head to the Indian burial grounds to meet back up with Sergeant Shane and his bunch. As times passes they soon realize something has happened. It isn’t long before The Scout Monk (alone and battered) meets up with the group. Explaining to Quincy that Sergeant Shane and the rest of the group were caught in an ambush and slaughtered. As the Scout he was able to escape past the main attack, but all the others behind him were now presumed dead.

Now knowing Sergeant Shane and the other group are all but gone and with the Seminole now back on their trail, they start their quick retreat back home. It isn’t long before they meet up with a lone Seminole, wearing Sergeant Shane’s uniform. Although the others want to use knives to make him talk, Quincy has another idea using a rattlesnake instead. After getting what they need from this Indian, the rattlesnake is thrown away, but only a few feet! Watching this movie, I always think why didn’t he throw it just a little further away from the group. With the information taken from the Seminole, they do find what is left of the other men, but in pieces at the bottom of an Alligator cage used by the Indians for their enemies.

After more days of hunger, fatigue and wondering through the everglades, they finally make it to Quincy’s home on the island, but only to find it has been destroyed and his little boy now gone. With nothing left to run to, it is there they decide to make a stand and take on the Seminoles for a last stand. Captain Wyatt decides to end this once and for all, so rather than risking losing everyone in another massacre, he alone walks to the lake edge and challenges Chief Ocola to a dual underwater with knives….

I have seen this movie so many times, I can’t remember the number. It is a timeless classic, and this movie is as good now as it was when I first saw it many, many years ago. Gary Cooper is superb in this role, and tailor made for the character of Captain Quincy Wyatt.

 Who Else Could Have Played That Part?

Gary Cooper suits it perfect. However, I also believe Randolph Scott could have done just as a superb job also. What do you think?

 You may also enjoy (with similar story lines, but set in different time-periods):

- ‘Northwest Passage’ in 1940 with Spencer Tracy, Robert Young and Walter Brennan.

- ‘Objective Burma’ in 1945 with Errol Flynn.



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