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Perhaps the quintessential western actor, Ben Johnson made do without the mythic posturing of a John Wayne or a Randolph Scott and appealed to moviegoers on a basic, almost atomic level, through small gestures and an aura of decency and hard-earned capability. After getting his start in Hollywood with unbilled bits, the Oklahoma-born rodeo performer and RKO horseman made for an easygoing cowboy hero in Ernest B. Schoedsack's ape-on-the-loose picture Mighty Joe Young (1949), which allowed him to rope and ride in a contemporary setting. In George Stevens' Shane (1953), Johnson started off in the black hat camp, tossing a glass of rotgut onto Alan Ladd's store-bought chambray shirt, but reformed after being bested by the hired gun in a fist fight. A rep player for John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, Johnson rarely played an out-and-out villain (The Getaway  notwithstanding) and in United Artist's War Drums (1957) he was again on the side of the angels... and the Indians.
This Bel-Air production from independent producers Howard W. Koch and Aubrey Schenck was one of several westerns to star Lex Barker, then attempting a Hollywood makeover by swapping his Tarzan loincloth for buckskins. Based by scenarist Gerald Drayson Adams on true events, the film makes a hero of Apache chieftain Mangas Coloradas, who tangled with the US Cavalry in the years leading up to the Civil War and whose colorful nickname was a gift from the Mexicans with whom he fought and traded. (A translation of the sobriquet provided the film's working title - Chief Red Sleeves.) Mangas Coloradas had been a character in Bel-Air's Fort Yuma (1955), which had a similarly progressive inclination but etched the character as a ruthless killing machine. The historic figure is treated more sensitively in War Drums, partnered romantically with Joan Taylor's half-breed concubine (who refuses squawdom to redefine herself as a quiver-carrying she-brave) and politically with Johnson's Luke Fargo, a prairie trader turned cavalry major.
To direct War Drums, Koch and Schenck chose Reginald Le Borg, a Hollywood journeyman whose earliest work in Hollywood had been handling the music scenes for A Night at the Opera (1935). Le Borg's reputation as an efficient director-for-hire had earned him a shot at actualizing a pet project but the box office failure of The White Orchid (1954) knocked him back to contract directing. The Viennese expatriate had directed a number of horror films for Universal in the 40s and scored big for Bel-Air with The Black Sleep (1956), which featured aging monster men Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone and Lon Chaney, Jr. After accepting Bel-Air's assignment of Voodoo Island (1957), a Boris Karloff quickie shot in Hawaii, Le Borg retrenched with the DeLuxe color War Drums and another black-and-white oater, The Dalton Girls (1957), before disappearing from the big screen for several years. He would cap his career with another run of horror pictures - among them, Diary of a Madman (1963) with Vincent Price - before his retirement in 1974.
Apart from a location fire that destroyed a wardrobe trailer and a lightning strike that took out a generator, principal photography for War Drums was briskly completed within two weeks of its mid-July 1956 start date. The feature had its Los Angeles premiere on April 11, 1957 and received generally good notices when it occupied the top bunk of a double bill with Sidney Salkow's Gun Brothers (1956), a United Artists acquisition starring Buster Crabbe. (Written as well by Gerald Drayson Adams, Gun Brothers also boasted a protagonist named Fargo.)
Ben Johnson would enjoy another lead role in Bel-Air's Fort Bowie (1958), directed by Howard Koch, but the balance of his long and illustrious career lay in character work, in such films as Hang 'Em High (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), Dillinger (1973) and Bite the Bullet (1975). In 1972, Johnson received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his work in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971).
Producer: Howard W. Koch
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Screenplay: Gerald Drayson Adams
Cinematography: William Margulies
Music: Les Baxter
Film Editing: John A. Bushelman
Cast: Lex Barker (Mangas Coloradas), Joan Taylor (Riva), Ben Johnson (Luke Fargo), Larry Chance (Ponce), Richard Cutting (Judge Benton), John Pickard (Sheriff Bullard), James Parnell (Arizona), John Colicos (Chino), Tom Monroe (Dutch Herman), Jil Jarmyn (Nona).
by Richard Harland Smith
The Films of Reginald LeBorg: Interviews, Essays and Filmography (Filmmaker Series, No. 3) by Wheeler Winston Dixon (The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992)