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Very few westerns have dealt with the Florida-based Seminole Indians, and the bulk of them appear to have been made in the mid-1950s. Following Distant Drums (1951), the subject was explored to varying degrees in Seminole (1953), War Arrow (1953), Shark River (1953), Seminole Uprising (1955) and Naked in the Sun (1957).
Distant Drums has the distinction of having used extensive Florida locations, with much action shot in the Everglades. Significant use was also made of the U.S. national monument Castillo de San Marcos (formerly known as Fort Marion), a Spanish-built fortress that was completed in 1695 at St. Augustine, Florida, and in which Seminole Chief Osceola was imprisoned in 1837 during the Second Seminole War. In Distant Drums, the character is named Chief Ocala and is played by Larry Carper - a rare instance in which having a Caucasian play an American Indian was not a stretch. In real life, Osceola was of mixed Caucasian and American Indian heritage, and was born under the name Billy Powell.
A rousing action yarn directed by Raoul Walsh, Distant Drums feels like something of a western variation on Walsh's earlier crackerjack combat film Objective, Burma! (1945). Here, Army General (and future president) Zachary Taylor sends Capt. Quincy Wyatt (Gary Cooper) and Lt. Richard Tufts (Richard Webb) and their company of expert "swamp soldiers" on a mission through Florida swampland to recapture a fort that has been taken by the Seminoles. Along the way, Cooper struggles through quicksand, spears fish, scales walls, fights underwater, and generally beats his way across Florida with a knife, a revolver and his fists - perfect material for a Raoul Walsh picture.
Filming in the Everglades was tough going. Walsh later recounted in his memoir that he hired two local snake experts to clear rattlers and water moccasins out of the swamp areas to be used for shooting each day. "The swampmen were not averse to the job," Walsh wrote. "They got paid by the studio, and in addition any snake they killed or captured became their property. They put the live ones in sacks and took them to the Fish and Game laboratory where their venom was extracted. Then the snakes were killed at a cannery and turned into steaks for sale as a Florida delicacy. The hunters never had it so good."
Nonetheless, dangers still lurked around the film unit. Gary Cooper sank to his waist in quicksand one day before he could be freed, and cameraman Sid Hickox, Walsh recounted, "swore that he almost set up on an alligator." According to the director, Cooper also complained that he had "donated a gallon of his best blood to the mosquitoes and leeches."
For the most part, however, Cooper loved the adventure of making Distant Drums. His old friend and longtime stand-in and stunt double Slim Talbot later said, "I never doubled a stunt for Cooper in this one. And he never worked harder. But he was doing the things he likes and wouldn't pass them up for the world." Walsh loved working with Cooper and the two often went fishing on days off. The director later wrote, "I never met a finer man than Gary Cooper or, for that matter, a better friend."
The movie was scripted primarily by Niven Busch, no stranger to westerns and action. He had recently written the screenplay for the classic film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and the noir-western Pursued (1947), and he also authored the novel on which Anthony Mann's noir-western The Furies (1950) was based.
Warner Brothers didn't give Distant Drums much of an advertising push. While it performed well commercially, it was seen as a standard Cooper/Walsh action piece, though a very well photographed one with its location Technicolor cinematography. Variety had some problems with the script but praised the pacing of the action: "Raoul Walsh's action-wise direction...keeps the film moving along at an acceptable clip."
Gary Cooper was going through a bit of a lull in his career at this point, but as the only name actor in the cast, he does carry the film on his shoulders. His leading lady, Mari Aldon, was a beauty who never went on to much of a film career. Cooper told a reporter at the time, "Mari Aldon's kisses have a fresh quality to them. You sort of feel know-all and protective towards her."
Cooper's next picture would be perhaps his most famous, High Noon (1952), for which he would receive his second Best Actor Academy Award.
Producer: Milton Sperling
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Niven Busch, Martin Rackin (screenplay); Niven Busch (story)
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: Douglas Bacon
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Folmar Blangsted
Cast: Gary Cooper (Capt. Quincy Wyatt), Mari Aldon (Judy Beckett), Richard Webb (Lt. Richard Tufts), Ray Teal (Pvt. Mohair), Arthur Hunnicutt (Monk), Robert Barrat (Gen. Zachary Taylor).
by Jeremy Arnold
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