Drums of Africa
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In the October 23, 1962 edition of The Hollywood Reporter, writer Don Carle Gillette praised - sight unseen - the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release Drums of Africa (1963) for marking a "return to Hollywood" for studio filmmaking in those days of runaway productions filmed far from home for far too much money. (An obvious yet unnamed target for Gillette's derision was 20th Century Fox's elephantine costumer Cleopatra, then still in production and destined to lay a $44 million rotten egg at the box office the following summer.) Whether the citation was heartfelt or the result of some canny publicity-drumming on the part of producers Philip N. Krasne and Alfred Zimbalist remains unknown but the fact is that Drums of Africa represents the very model of efficiency filmmaking.
Krasne and Zimbalist had résumés rich in the low cost/high yield world of exploitation filmmaking. Krasne and partner Jack Gross had bankrolled Kenneth Crane's Monster from Green Hell (1958), in which Bronson Canyon and surrounding Griffith Park had subbed for equatorial Africa; Zimbalist had produced Phil Tucker's schlock classic Robot Monster (1953), which also made use of the Hollywood-adjacent Bronson Cave to budget-conscious yet atmospheric effect. Krasne and Zimbalist's pitch to MGM was simplicity in and of itself: they would cobble together a jungle adventure for the studio using nothing more than the Culver City back lot and vaulted footage from the 1950 Technicolor remake of King Solomon's Mines starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr for establishing shots that would convince moviegoers that the production had been shot on location on the dark continent. Drums of Africa's ace in the hole was Frankie Avalon, whose singing and acting career had foundered somewhat since his chart-topping successes in 1959-60 and early film roles in The Alamo (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Panic in Year Zero! (1962). Avalon was afforded star status in Drums of Africa with top billing, although his character is yet another earnest juvenile whose purpose is to back romantic leads Lloyd Bochner and Mariette Hartley. MGM had high hopes for the 22 year-old Hartley, whose performance in Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962) had drawn favorable critical comparisons to Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman. In a 1986 interview published in The Daily News, Hartley recalled the experience of making her second feature film:
"They put me in a movie called Drums of Africa with Frankie Avalon, who brought his comb so we could have some music. We got one elephant from Jungleland who was so old he couldn't get his ears up. And literally at 6:00 in the morning we were mounting rubber ears on this punch-drunk elephant. It was fun."
For Hartley, completion of Drums of Africa brought a host of life-altering calamities, most ruinous being the July 1963 suicide of her father and a medical misdiagnosis from MGM's insurance doctor that got her bounced from the studio payroll; in the process, Hartley lost a role in Henry Levin's Come Fly with Me (1963) to Lois Nettleton. Though she turned up in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) and spent a season on Peyton Place, Hartley spiraled into depression and alcoholism, reduced to working as a shop girl in the mark down section of I. Magnin in Beverly Hills before returning to her chosen profession mid-decade.
Scripted by expatriate British novelist-turned-screenwriter Robin Estridge (Eye of the Devil, 1966) from an original story by Arthur Hoerl (Reefer Madness, 1936), Drums of Africa is a standard khaki and pith helmet meller with a strong core cast (including Torin Thatcher as a white hunter and Hari Rhodes as an educated African). The lion's share of the film's essential xenophobia is reserved for Arab characters, who figure peripherally until the third act when Muslim slavers get Hartley's virginal missionary in their olive-skinned clutches. In a higher profile role than those to which he was accustomed, Hollywood stuntman George Sawaya (best remembered by cult film fans as the deformed sailor in The Black Sleep  opposite Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr.) appears as the Arab ringleader, whose misogyny and disregard for Christian propriety is put paid with good old American ingenuity and a blast of TNT. One of the last ethnic groups to get anything like a fair shake in Hollywood, Arabs would remain go-to villains in American films straight into the 21st Century. Brought to MGM on schedule and under-budget, Drums of Africa got a fair shake from the critics of the day, with positive reviews from Film Daily, The Motion Picture Herald and The Hollywood Reporter. Variety called the production out on its use of stock footage, labeling the result "counterfeit picture-making, an attempt to succeed in business without really trying." Though New York Daily News critic Kathleen Carroll pegged Drums of Africa as a "lukewarm example of African drum-beating drama," she singled out Mariette Hartley for praise, maintaining that the sophomore player was "perhaps Hollywood's only actress who can look as if she belongs in the midst of Africa."
Producers: Philip N. Krasne, Al Zimbalist
Director: James B. Clark
Screenplay: Robin Estridge (writer); Arthur Hoerl (story)
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Addison Hehr
Music: Johnny Mandel
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Cast: Frankie Avalon (Brian Ferrers), Lloyd Bochner (David Moore), Mariette Hartley (Ruth Knight), Peter Mamakos (Chavera), Michael Pate (Viledo), Hari Rhodes (Kasongo), George Sawaya (Arab), Torin Thatcher (Jack Cuortemayn), Ron Whelan (Ship Captain).
by Richard Harland Smith