An unusual Western, about tolerance and community, spare and beautiful, with gorgeous direction by Hugo Fregonese that makes each of its elements signify in ways that seem visually striking and thematically subtle. It was the last film produced by the legendary Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie, The Leopard Man, etc.), one he was pleased with.
A title card at the beginning informs us that it’s 1880 and the Mecalero Apaches are starving. The creation of a border between Mexico and the US in what until then had been their lands have driven them hungry and with nowhere to go. They’re ready to attack. The good citizens of Spanish Boot know nothing of this yet. Miners from Wales now working a local silver mine, they’re prosperous, want to build up the town, bring in schools and infrastructure and are keen to drive out the prostitutes, gamblers and other riff-raff out so they can get to building their idea of community. As the film unfolds that sense of community will alter, become more inclusive.
This is all beautifully and economically expressed in the clip above. But what I want to direct your attention to there is the direction, the initial shot, simple and economical but creating a dynamism by having the citizens walk one way and the horses in the other, with the dog initially cutting half way through, the camera following the citizens until it rests on the sign ‘Betty Careless Dance Hall: Partners for All’. The purpose of the dance hall couldn’t be clearer. But what really caught my eye was the cut on Jehu (Clarence Muse) with the door opening throwing a shaft of light around his figure that quickly envelop him in shadows, as if these good citizens will be the destruction of this particular man, which will indeed be the case. This shot foreshadows the scene where he refuses to take his hat off because the dance hall girls have been killed on their way out of town and he’s been scalped; yet he nonetheless urges bad gambler Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) to be good and return to the town he’s just been kicked out of to warn its citizens of the Apaches.
The film has beautiful, spare compositions, often rhymed. See the two below: first the tranquil sweeping in of the outside of the church, then the running to it from safety, then the church gates itself becoming like the gates of hell.
The action scenes are superbly done. Note below, how we are made aware of the Apache charge before the characters are, then the rhythm of the cuts; and lastly, how the action, exciting as it is, is not an end in itself but a means of dramatising the conflict between churchman and gambler, and setting the grounds for the beginnings of an understanding that will only develop later on.
Note the dramatic use of lighting in the clip below.
…and the beautiful coming together of the community in a song from the homeland below;
As the Apaches surround the Church, the Church becomes a furnace and hell-hole, death strikingly visualised as potentially appearing from any window (see below… and note the spare and striking compositions and use of colour). We see very few Apaches, it’s the drums and the open, too-high windows they can’t see out of, that create the sense of entrapment and danger:
Fregonese is brilliant at making use of colour and indeed he uses the green of the dress Sally (Coleen Gray) wears as the visual anchor for most of the final scenes inside the church (see below):
..and invoking light and symbolism in the compositions (see the light dissolving into the pieta like pose on the woman and child on the left below).
…and the exceptional use of pyramid compositions in 4:3:
There is much more to admire but here I only want to add that light, framing, and composition do not just make things pretty but symbolise and signifies so that near the end, when the Reverend recognises that the Apaches also have their own Gods, as valuable as his, it becomes a powerful dramatic moment, visualised as below:
The film could easily have become simply a tale of a woman who loves a bad man (Stephen McNally), sees the value of a good one (Willard Parker as Mayor Joe Madden) and the rest of the film is then about how to get rid of her bad love object. But Apache Drums is surprising in all kinds of ways. Fregonese tends to make relationships complicated, people are redeemable, and surprising. And certainly Fregonese surprises. The cliche of the cavalry to the rescue is only seen through a fiery blaze of a ruined church door. The ending image is not the couple embracing, or the town reconstructed, but a donkey feeding on its mother in a church watched over by a Mexican peasant. A gorgeous film.