Monday, December 24, 2012
Although the South lost the war, the Confederates win the battle in “Drums in the Deep South!” Oscar-winning art designer William Cameron Menzies helmed this Civil War yarn based on a screenplay by “Whistle Stop” scribe Philip Yordan and Sidney Harmon from a story by Hollister Noble. Later, Yordan collaborated with “Talk of the Town” writer Harmon on "Battle of the Bulge," but Harmon was now a producer. One of the best B-movie directors in the business, B. Reeves Eason of “The Phantom Empire” handled the second-unit action. Menzies treats us to a glimpse or two of slaves in the fields and those who worked in the houses. As many commentators have written, movies about the Civil War are few in number and the good ones even fewer. Guy Wilkerson has a bit part as a Confederate sentry, while Denver Pyle is cast as an obnoxious Union guard.
The explosive action unfolds in Georgia in 1861. The first scene occurs at an antebellum mansion. Colonel Braxton Summers (Craig Stevens of “Peter Gunn”) has returned from Atlanta. According to Summers, the South has been planting too much cotton. Uncle Albert cannot believe Braxton’s news. “Cotton is king. The whole south is built on it. And the world is knocking down our doors for more.” Braxton tells his beautiful wife, Kathy (Barbara Payton), Atlanta is a powder keg. Furthermore, the militia has been called up. He adds all West Pointers are being called back for duty. Like Uncle Albert, Kathy believes the storm over succession will abate. Brax lacks her confidence. Meantime, he shows Kathy a black scarf he purchased for her. She isn’t overjoyed when he tells her about encountering two of his former roommates from West Point. The soap opera component of “Drums” rears its amorous head. Kathy refuses to see Clay Clayburn (James Craig of “Flying G-Men”) who has never stopped loving her. She assures Brax anything she felt for Clay has passed. Brax tells Kathy that Clay has changed. As it turns out, Clay and Will Deming (Guy Madison of "Seven Winchesters for a Massacre"), lie about their thriving shipping business. They ship cotton from New Orleans to Liverpool and then take wool to Boston. At dinner, Brax reveals he is experimenting with a new cotton seed for export. After Brax and Will excuse themselves to discuss his experiment, Clay confronts Kathy. He admits he is not a ship captain but a common seaman. Moreover, he has neither repaid his father’s debts nor bought back the family plantation. Outside the mansion roars a storm that possesses all the fury of Armageddon. Later, Albert forsakes his chair and proclaims amid thunder and lightning that the South has bombarded Fort Sumter.
Menzies stages a timeline as the years march past to an artillery barrage. By 1864, the Union Army has compelled the Confederacy to retreat. General Sherman's Army is threatening Atlanta. General Joseph Johnston (Lewis Martin of “Operation Pacific”) selects Major Clayburn for the mission. Johnston orders Clayburn to sneak twenty men with four cannon through occupied lines and position them atop Devil's Mountain to blunt the Federal advance. Johnston’s closest officers have doubts about Clayburn’s qualifications. “Clayburn is reckless beyond all risk. He exposes himself to enemy fire on all occasions. How he has come through this war and still be alive . . ., one officer cannot understand Clayburn’s incredible luck. Another officer observes, “The man seems to be seeking death.” “A good soldier,” Johnston points out, “dies only once. And death is someone he knows.”
When Clayburn enters the headquarters tent, Johnston informs him he has “a difficult job for him.” Johnston explains, “Sherman’s whole army poured out of Chattanooga three weeks ago. They are moving straight along this single railroad and heading for Atlanta. If he takes Atlanta, we’re doomed. Our only chance is to draw him deep in Georgia, cut off his supply lines, and destroy his army bit by bit. The bulk of his supplies are pouring through this same railroad and as fast as we destroy it, his men rebuild it. What we’ve got to do is find a weak link in this railroad so we can keep destroying it faster than Sherman’s men can repair it.”
Clayburn is familiar with the terrain since he grew up there. Johnston indicates Devil’s Mountain dominates the railway where it swings through Snake Gap. The General believes this constitutes “the weak link in Sherman’s supply line.” Johnston wants Clayburn to blast the railroad until the Confederate Army can regroup and counter-attack. “General, Devil’s Mountain is a sheer cliff,” Clayburn warns. “I might be able to get twenty men up there, but four cannon that’s another question.” Johnston relieves him when he tells him about a scout who can guide them from inside the cave to the top. “General, if I can get the cannon on top of Devil’s Mountain, I could fight there until doomsday,” Clayburn vows with a gleam in his eyes. “You may have to, Major,” they warn him. No sooner have they embarked on their mission than things turn sour. When our protagonists rendezvous with their guide, they find him swinging from a noose.
Menzies never shows the Confederates whistling Dixie as they trundle their cannons across rugged terrain through enemy country to Devils’ Mountain. Once they get inside the mountain, it’s quite a chore getting the artillery up to the top. Menzies does a competent job of driving the action along without sacrificing g momentum. It takes him approximately 26 minutes to get the Southerners to their objective. Devils Mountain resembles the “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” mountain. This is a rare Civil War epic with an interesting premise that anticipates the blockbuster 1961 World War II mission movie "The Guns of Navarone." The music is excellent! Composer Dimitri Tiomkin provides an atmospheric orchestral soundtrack. “Drums in the Deep South” is an entertaining epic.