Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gary Cooper, Mari Aldon, Richard Webb, Ray Teal, Arthur Hunnicutt, Robert Barrat
Written by: Niven Busch, Martin Rackin, based on a story by Niven Busch
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 101
Date: 12/29/1951

Distant Drums (1951)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Swamp Cowboys

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Distant Drums is a minor entry in Raoul Walsh's filmography, but it clearly demonstrates what made him one of the most reliable of all Hollywood action directors.

In the 1840s, Captain Quincy Wyatt (Gary Cooper) leads a band of soldiers in destroying a fort held by the evil Seminole Indians. They succeed, but are forced to make their escape through the deadly Everglades, with rescued beauty Judy Beckett (Mari Aldon) in tow.

The plot is nothing to write home about, especially the one-dimensional treatment of the Seminoles as bloodthirsty savages, but Walsh's handling of the material is breathtaking.

He uses the glorious jungle and swamp exteriors, the tall grass, the water, fire, the trees, and various dangerous creatures, as a living part of the storytelling. The physical space is always a crucial part of the emotional thrust. Wyatt demonstrates his superiority over a lieutenant by shooting an approaching snake over his shoulder.

Even the final showdown with knives between Wyatt and the Seminole chief takes place above and below the surface of a body of water. (The glorious color cinematography was by Sidney Hickox.)

The movie is also notable for its groundbreaking use of sound, especially the first use of the "Wilhelm scream."

Olive Films released this example of a "Florida Western" (I didn't even know that was a thing) on Blu-ray, with their usual high quality and usual lack of extras or subtitles.

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