APACHE DRUMS is a very good, atmospheric Universal Western in which producer Val Lewton and director Hugo Fregonese show what can be done with a simple set, creative staging, and a good cast.
Gambler Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) is run out of the little Southwestern town of Spanish Boot after he kills a man in self-defense. Sam's girl Sally (Coleen Gray), frustrated by Sam's inability to settle down and lead a respectable life, refuses to marry Sam and leave with him.
As Sam rides across the desert he discovers an Indian massacre and realizes the Mescalero Indians are on the warpath. Sam returns to warn the citizens of Spanish Boot, who won't pay attention until an arrow-riddled stagecoach races into town.
The long, suspenseful sequence in the church is the movie's great set piece. It's this section which identifies the film as a Lewton production, as an amazingly oppressive atmosphere builds; the first time an Indian came through a window I just about jumped out of my seat. Later in the night there's an eerie red glow outside the church, as the Indians set fire to the rest of the town.
There's also a marvelous moment when the Welsh miners in the church attempt to drown out the Indian drums with a rousing song. As Lewton had proved time and again, it really doesn't take a big budget or top-level stars to make a good, engrossing movie. Sadly, Lewton died the year this film was released.
McNally and Gray are fine in the leads, with McNally credibly taking his character from a too-slick man looking out for number one to someone who becomes a responsible leader of the community in a time of great crisis. I thought he did a very good job in the role. Gray, an excellent actress, doesn't get a chance to do much more than encourage McNally and look worried, but she has a good moment near the end when she urges him to tell the others in the church just how dire their chances have become.
I also particularly liked James Griffith as a brave lieutenant who is wounded in the initial Indian attack but nonetheless manages to offer wise counsel and direction to everyone in the church. Arthur Shields as a minister and Armando Silvestre as an Indian Army scout are also quite good. I did find Willard Parker a bit tedious as the rigid town mayor, who takes too long to come to his senses, but the character ultimately proves his worth.
That's Sherry Jackson (MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY) as the most prominently featured child in the church. The cast also includes Clarence Muse, Georgia Backus, James Best, Chinto Guzman, Chuck Hayward, and Noreen Corcoran.
David Chandler's screenplay was based on THE STAND AT SPANISH BOOT by Harry Brown. The film runs 75 minutes.
The movie was filmed in Technicolor by Charles P. Boyle at locations including Tucson, Arizona, and California's Red Rock Canyon.
I owe a great debt of thanks to my friend Mel for making it possible for me to see this film. Hopefully this very worthwhile movie will be released on DVD at some point in the future. In the meantime, the film can currently be seen on YouTube; movies such as this have a way of disappearing quickly so anyone interested should watch it immediately.
There's more to read on this film by Toby at 50 Westerns From the 50s and by Colin at Riding the High Country.