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The Drum

The Drum(1938)

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On neither side of the Atlantic did Valerie Hobson quite rise to the first rank of stardom. Yet this British naval officer's daughter born in Northern Ireland, with her slender build and dancer's bearing and carriage, became the quintessential embodiment of aristocratic English women graceful, elegant, lightly commanding, unless she was playing monsters like Estella in Great Expectations (1946), Edith D'Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) or the Countess in The Card (1952). She was to describe Edith's personification of upper-class stuffiness as her favorite role. It makes one wish she had been cast in more comedies. But she's not only the best thing in Drums (1938, aka The Drum), directed by Zoltan Korda, produced by his brother Alexander, with designs by their brother Vincent. She almost singlehandedly renders it watchable, keeping her dignity while the others scatter theirs to the winds, in a haze of colonial delusion.

Dating from a time when the sun never set on the British empire (although it was about to), Drums today can hardly be regarded as anything more than dated, imperial chest-thumping, patronizing and paternal, in which Brits alone know what's good for the rest of the world, in this case India. Set between Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, it features some location shooting although not as much as Zoltan Korda, taking over from Robert Flaherty, had been permitted to shoot in India for Elephant Boy (1937) or in the Sudan for The Four Feathers (1939). To keep costs down, producer Alexander ordered brother Zoltan to shoot most of the film in the hills of South Wales, near Harlech. Hordes of Welsh miners and shepherds pocketed pence and shillings for playing turbaned gurkhas and Muslim tribal rebels in blackface.

Elephant Boy will be remembered as the breakthrough film of the teenaged Indian actor, Sabu, who had been a real mahout (elephant driver). Exotic, lively, gentle in manner and unthreateningly deferential to the British, he was a big hit, whereupon Korda signed him to a long-term contract. Drums, with Technicolor enhancing its action and spectacle, was the first film under that contract. It casts him as a young pro-British Indian prince who befriends a lowly drummer boy (Desmond Tester) in a British regiment (clearly Scottish, although the film refers to it as English!). The army drummer teaches the prince drumming. Not surprisingly, down the line, the prince, whose father was killed by his evil rebel brother (the Canadian Raymond Massey, under layers of, yes, blackface!), saves the British from being massacred. He warns them by beating out a signal on the sacred drum that was to have been the harbinger of their doom.

Pretty absurd stuff, and Hobson isn't spared. As the colonel's daughter who marries Roger Livesey's smug, superior captain in command of the garrison, she's required to stand straight-faced while her husband speaks lines like, "The sacred drum will beat three times at midnight," before she replies, "And then everything will be over?" In between, she demonstrates her steadfastness by insisting on accompanying her new husband to the outpost where he's assigned to keep the peace and sign a treaty offering British military protection in exchange for a ban on arms traffic through the region. Too late, as it happens. Massey's rebels are already heavily armed ("Good Lord, a machine gun," the captain exclaims on a reconnoitering mission). While pretending to host the British at a feast while lining them up in his sights, the rebel prince expresses the fundamentalist view that women should never dance with men, but for them.

While the men are busy rattling sabers, Hobson's lady mostly rattles teacups, but she easily convinces us she's a woman of backbone and rectitude, coolly picking up a firearm and aiming it at an assassin who means to knife Sabu's prince and heir apparent taking refuge in her garden. Driving the thug off, she's as convincing when standing her ground as she is at sophisticated drawing room banter, injecting a dash of '30s glamour, every inch a colonel's daughter, an instinct for command in her DNA. But then the '30s were, if unenlightened in some ways, admirable in the shared tacit assumption of the period that one was obliged to meet life with a sense of style. This Hobson did with unfaltering elegance. Ironically, just as Massey's deadly fundamentalist zealot anticipates today's Taliban, so Hobson's wifely steadfastness was to reverberate through her off-camera life. Married to John Profumo, the MP who was implicated in a sex scandal that made Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies tabloid icons in 1963, she stuck loyally by him, joining him in charitable endeavors after he resigned his seat in Parliament. Her career ended in 1954 where it began, on stage at the Drury Lane Theatre. She enjoyed widespread admiration until her death at 81 in 1998.

Sabu died young, at 39, in Hollywood, of a heart attack, seldom recapturing the acclaim of his early films -- his Mowgli in The Jungle Book (1942) and young general in Black Narcissus (1947) are exceptions, although he was seldom unemployed. Livesey is remembered mostly for his role of the prickly laird who in his dour way romances a young Wendy Hiller in the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger I Know Where I'm Going (1945). Powell and Pressburger were protgs of Alexander Korda, who spent the war years in America (and was accused of tepid patriotism until it was revealed that he was a courier for Churchill). If the unquestioning acceptance of the imperialist sentiments in Drums seems in retrospect nonsensical, it was, in Korda's case, sincere. Like so many immigrants, the Hungarian brothers embraced the country that embraced them and were not inclined to challenge its prevailing order. Still, they might have wondered why the British in the script wouldn't believe the warning of Sabu's prince at first, but would believe their own spy, who didn't know the territory as well. Nor did they see fit to discourage a Brit-worshipping passivity in the young prince, to whom a life oriented toward serving British interests seems the best of all possible scenarios. Still, it must have been fun to watch the sheep scatter on that hillside in Wales when the rousing action scenes heated up.

Producer: Alexander Korda (uncredited)
Director: Zoltan Korda
Screenplay: A.E.W. Mason; Lajos Biro (adaptation); Arthur Wimperis, Patrick Kirwan, Hugh Gray (all three scenario)
Cinematography: Georges Perinal; Osmond Borradaile (Indian location scenes)
Music: John Greenwood
Film Editing: Henry Cornelius
Cast: Sabu (Prince Azim), Raymond Massey (Prince Ghul), Roger Livesey (Capt. Carruthers), Valerie Hobson (Mrs. Carruthers), David Tree (Lieut. Escott), Desmond Tester (Bill Holder), Francis L. Sullivan (Governor), Archibald Batty (Major Bond), Frederick Culley (Dr. Murphy), Amid Taftazani (Mohammed Khan), Laurence Baskcomb (Zarullah).

by Jay Carr

American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films, 2002
British Film Institute: BFI Screenonline, 2003-2008
Valerie Hobson obituary, The Daily Telegraph (UK), 21 November 1998
Charmed Lives: a Family Romance, by Michael Korda, Harper Perennial, 2002
Alexander Korda: The Man Who Could Work Miracles, by Karol Kulik, W.H. Allen, 1975

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