Distant Drums (1951)
Gary Cooper vs. the Seminole Indians by way of Warner Brothers and Raoul Walsh.
Coop is in full heroic mode here as a Captain living in the Florida Everglades who leads a platoon of soldiers to take out a fort of gun runners but when the Seminole braves cut off his escape passage by boat he must push his men forward through 150 miles of gators and snakes across the everglades to safety.
When the film opens I am reminded of Apocalypse Now with Richard Webb en-route up river to meet a mysterious Captain who shuns the military. Unlike Brando, Coop comes striding onto the screen in full outdoors regalia. A leader among men. Joining him on the journey we have the always capable Ray Teal as a wining member of the troop and as his key scout the lovable Arthur Hunnicutt. If Walter Brennan hadn’t put a stamp on the role of the leading man’s sidekick, film history would recall Hunnicutt a whole lot more. He has that laconic lazy quality about him that perfectly transfers to the screen. A credit to any film he appears in.
As for Coop’s leading lady, we are treated to a Virginia Mayo look alike by way of Mari Aldon. Another stunning beauty who never really found her place but she did wind up married to director Tay Garnett. Coop and his men rescue her along the way and wouldn’t you know it, Gary has time to romance her while at the same time picking her up and carrying her through a gator infested river bed.
For those that attack westerns for their lack of Indian characterization, they should probably avoid this title as the film mainly focuses on heroic Cooper and killing his Seminole enemy. The film is admittedly standard fare from director Walsh. Location filming helps but the screen shots that they put together back at the studio are always out of place. This film is by no means any different than many others of the time in that regard.
Cooper was in a bit of a career lull here having done a succession of films that aren’t remembered well compared to his classics. He had just done a western called Dallas that isn’t all that memorable and neither was Bright Leaf or Task Force. This film at least put him back in a very physical role that played to his he man strengths and of course the following year he would take home his second Oscar for High Noon.
For a look at another western with an everglade setting check out Seminole with Anthony Quinn or this John Anderson video of a fine country music song from a few years back.