Cast & Crew
In 1840, seven years after the beginning of the Seminole Indian war in Florida, U.S. Army General Zachary Taylor sends for naval officer Lieutenant Richard Tufts to undertake a special mission to defeat the Indians. Upon his arrival in Florida, Tufts meets his scout, Monk, who guides him through the alligator-ridden swamp to the island home of the mission's commander, Capt. Quincy Wyatt, a reclusive widower and an expert swamp fighter. After bidding farewell to his five-year-old son, whose mother was a Creek princess, Wyatt goes with Tufts and Monk to Army headquarters, where they receive their official instructions from General Taylor and inspect their troops. Wyatt and his company then pursue the first objectives of their mission--to recapture a western fortress taken by the Seminoles and free the white prisoners being held captive there. No sooner do Wyatt and his men free the prisoners, among whom is the beautiful Judy Beckett, than they are pursued by the Seminoles and forced to abandon their plans to board a rescue boat on Lake Okeechobee. Wyatt commands his forces to beat a hasty retreat deep into the Everglades, where a brush fire is set to hold back the approaching Indians. The fire keeps the Indians temporarily at bay, but things look bad for Wyatt when the drumbeat of the Indian battle cry is sounded and the platoon is faced with little room for escape. Thinking quickly, Wyatt decides to send his platoon with Sgt. Shane, while he and Tufts stay behind to build canoes, which will be used to rendezvous with the platoon at the Indian burial grounds. During this time, a romance is sparked between Wyatt and Judy, who tells Wyatt that she is intent on returning to Savannah to take revenge upon the man who killed her father. When the canoes are completed, Wyatt, Tufts and Judy journey to the burial grounds, but Shane and the platoon are not there when they arrive. They decide to wait, but the only person who emerges from the darkness is Monk, who arrives with news that the platoon has been ambushed and massacred by the Seminoles. Meanwhile, General Taylor, fearing that Wyatt's platoon has met its demise in the Florida swamps, calls off his search for the fighters and orders his men to rescue Wyatt's son. When Wyatt and the others finally make it to Wyatt's island, they find it burned out and the boy missing. Fearing that his son is dead, Wyatt decides to end his retreat and fight his attackers. After he defeats Chief Ocala, the Seminole chief, in a daring underwater fight, the rest of the Seminole warriors capitulate and flee in fear. Wyatt's success is made sweeter when General Taylor safely delivers his son and Judy decides to stay with him on the island.
Oliver S. Garretson
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
Stuart Kaminsky, Coop
Jeffrey Meyers, Gary Cooper: American Hero
Raoul Walsh, Each Man in His Time
The actors "playing" Seminole Indians were actually natives of that tribe.
This film contains the first known instance of "The Wilhelm Scream" (a sound effect of a man screaming, since used in over 70 other movies).
Distant Drums includes the following written epilogue: "This picture was photographed in the heart of the Florida Everglades, at Silver Springs and at Castillo de San Marcos in the Southeastern National Monuments through the courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service." However, while Martin Rackin and Niven Busch were writing the screenplay, a January 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that the film would be shot entirely in Utah. According to contemporary news items, United States Pictures used the title of Dan Totheroh's play Distant Drums, which it had purchased in 1946, for this film, even though the play, which was filmed in 1946 as South of St. Louis, bears no resemblance to the film.
The character of "Chief Ocala" May have been based on the real-life Seminole chief, Chief Osceola, who led the battle against the United States during the second Seminole War and was captured by the Americans while surrendering. The second war between the Seminoles and the United States was sparked when a majority of the Seminole Indian chiefs in Florida refused to honor the treaty of removal signed by a small number of Seminole chiefs. For more information about Osceola, see the entry below for Naked in the Sun.
Studio publicity material in the AMPAS production file indicates that Mel Archer, a long distance swimming champion, and David Rochlen, a Santa Monica, CA, lifeguard, were given roles in the film because of their underwater expertise. Although Archer is credited in the picture, Rochlen's appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. An April 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item adds Florida dancing teachers Peggy and Marie Mixon to the cast, but their appearance is also unconfirmed. According to a July 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item, Alex North was reported to be writing the score, but he was not credited onscreen and his contribution to the final film, if any, has not been determined.
The file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS library contains a letter dated March 20, 1951 from PCA director Joseph I. Breen to producer Milton Sperling in which Breen urged Sperling to change the opening narration of film. The narration apparently referred to the Seminole Indians as "more vile than the rattlesnakes" and "sadistic and bloodthirsty." Breen suggested that "something far less derogatory should be substituted, in order to avoid justified complaint." According to a May 1951 article in American Cinematographer, a camera vehicle called the "swampmobile" was used to shoot scenes in inaccessible areas of the Florida Everglades. Modern sources add Kenneth MacDonald to the cast and note the similarities between Distant Drums and Raoul Walsh's 1945 World War II picture Objective, Burma!