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Considered by some critics the best of Audie Murphy's early-1950s Westerns, Drums Across the River (1954) boasts an involving plot, outstanding supporting cast and typically concise, straightforward direction by Nathan Juran, who had directed Murphy the previous year in Gunsmoke and Tumbleweed. "My strength on these films," Juran said in an interview, "was in planning and organizing, and having some input on the sets and camera angles. There wasn't time to have any doubts about the next shot. I didn't like to get arty." Drums Across the River was Murphy's final film with Juran, and some felt the Murphy Westerns would never again be quite as satisfying.
In this one, Murphy plays Gary Brannon, a young wagon freighter in a Colorado mining town of the 1880s whose quiet life with his father (Walter Brennan) is thrown into chaos when sneaky businessman Frank Walker (Lyle Bettger) tries to stir up a war between the Ute Indians and the townspeople because the only gold left to mine in the area is on Indian lands in the San Juan Mountains. Meanwhile, Walker forces Brannon into participating in a Wells Fargo robbery by abducting his dad and threatening to kill him. Charged with murder after the robbery, Brannon escapes to try and save his dad, clear his name and, despite his hatred of Indians, prevent a confrontation between the Utes and the cavalry. All these plot developments are laid out and resolved in a mere 78 minutes.
Playing an important role in the action is Jay Silverheels as Taos, the warrior son of Ute chief Ouray (Morris Ankrum). Mara Corday plays a voluptuous saloon girl who is friendly with Bettger; future Wyatt Earp star Hugh O'Brian is a black-clad gunman with a deadly smile; and Lisa Gaye, sister of the better-known Debra Paget, provides Murphy's love interest. Also on hand is a lineup of colorful character types including James Anderson, George Wallace, Lane Bradford, Robert Bray and former B-Western star Bob Steele, who enjoys a rousing fight scene with Murphy. Silverheels, on leave from playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger series, delivers a solemn, regal performance. Brennan does his usual audience-pleasing work, and Bettger, a leading villain of the period, is smoothly compelling. Murphy himself earned a favorable reaction from reviewer Hal Erikson, who found him to be "at his taciturn best."
According to later interviews, Murphy's leading ladies had quite different opinions of him. "Audie was psychotic -- insane!" said Mara Corday. "After killing all those people during the war, you'd have to be a little nuts!... Audie was very quiet, soft-spoken and boyish -- yet a flirt with the girls. But he had a short fuse, so you walked around on eggshells whenever he was near." Lisa Gaye: "Audie was a gentleman -- always! Friendly. Of course, I was still a teenager when we worked together, but he was very nice, very protective of me. Audie was like a big brother to me."
The Films of Audie Murphy authors Bob Larkins and Boyd Magers write that, "During the filming of Drums Across the River, for realism, Audie insisted the prop guns be loaded with full charges instead of the usual quarter loads. Consequently, when Hugh O'Brian carelessly fired off his pistol near Audie's face, Murphy received powder burns on his face and neck."
The Technicolor film was shot partly on the Universal backlot, with some vivid location filming at Barton Flats in California's San Bernardino Mountains.
Producer: Melville Tucker
Director: Nathan Juran
Screenplay: John K. Butler (story and screenplay); Lawrence Roman (screenplay)
Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Richard H. Riedel
Music: Henry Mancini, Herman Stein
Film Editing: Virgil Vogel
Cast: Audie Murphy (Gary Brannon), Walter Brennan (Sam Brannon), Lyle Bettger (Frank Walker), Lisa Gaye (Jennie Marlowe), Hugh O'Brian (Morgan), Mara Corday (Sue Randolph), Jay Silverheels (Taos), Emile Meyer (Nathan Marlowe), Regis Toomey (Sheriff Jim Beal), Morris Ankrum (Chief Ouray).
by Roger Fristoe