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DRUMS (aka: THE DRUM) (director: Zoltan Korda; screenwriters: from the novel by A.E.W. Mason/Lajos Biro/Arthur Wimperis/Patrick Kirwan/Hugh Gray; cinematographer: Georges Perinal/Osmond Borradaile; editor: Henry Cornelius; music: John Greenwood; cast: Sabu (Prince Azim), Raymond Massey (Prince Ghul), Roger Livesey (Capt. Carruthers), Valerie Hobson (Mrs. Margery Carruthers), David Tree (Lieut. Escott), Desmond Tester (Bill Holder), Francis L. Sullivan (Governor), Archibald Batty (Major Bond), Frederick Culley (Dr. Murphy), Amid Taftazani (Mohammed Khan), Laurence Baskcomb (Zarullah), Edward Lexy (Sergeant-Major Kernel), Michael Martin Harvey (Mullah); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alexander Korda; Janus; 1938-UK)
“Rousing and lavish Technicolor old-fashioned adventure story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Rousing and lavish Technicolor old-fashioned adventure story, shot on location in the hillsides of Wales and in the London studio. It’s set on the Northwest Frontier of India during the days of the Raj. Though it’s dated and obviously not considered PC today, as it’s a blatant slap on the back for British imperialism as benevolent to the Indians who accept their good will and fight against other Indian rulers. That seems a bit of a stretch to believe today (during its theater release, the film caused anti-British riots in India). Nevertheless, as pure cinema, it was thrillingly done with class, pomp and a good climactic battle scene. It’s also helped by a charismatic performance from Elephant Boy star Sabu (who before the 13-year-old was discovered for films, had been an elephant driver), the usual reliable performance given by Roger Livesey who inhabits the role of a starchy stiff upper lip heroic British officer as if he were the prototype, and the slender dignified Valerie Hobson who can be viewed as the quintessential incarnation of the aristocratic English women.

Director Zoltan Korda (“The Four Feathers”/”Elephant Boy”/”Sahara”) plays it as a tribute to the British Empire, at a time when the “Sun Never Sets” on it even if soon those days of glory will vanish. It was produced by Zoltan’s brother Alexander and the set designs by his other brother Vincent. Drums is the American title, while in England it’s called The Drum. It’s adapted from A. E. W. Mason’s novel by a team of writers.

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Margery (Valerie Hobson) is from a military family who marries the smug captain in command of the garrison in Peshawar, in the Northwest frontier of India, Capt. Carruthers (Roger Livesey). The brave lady insists on accompanying her new husband to the outpost in Tokot, a dangerous assignment where she will be the only woman on the post. Carruthers is assigned to keep the peace and sign a treaty with the friendly Khan, offering British military protection in exchange for a ban on arms traffic through the region.

The Khan is killed by his evil madman brother Prince Ghul (Raymond Massey) and the usurper also plans to kill the Khan’s beloved young son Prince Azim (Sabu), who is heir to the throne. But his father’s loyal followers help Azim escape to Peshawar and he lives in the nearby town disguised as a common worker protected from assassins by his loyal followers. Before the British garrison left Tokot for Peshawar, Azim befriended the same aged Bill Holder (Desmond Tester), one of the drummers in the garrison, and learned from him how to bang out a message on the drums if he were in danger and played it for Carruthers.

The British Governor (Francis L. Sullivan) orders the troops of Carruthers to return to Tokot, as Prince Ghul promised to honor the treaty signed by his brother. The scheming Ghul invites the British to a polo match while machine guns are sneaked into the city. Mohammed Khan (Amid Taftazani), who is friendly with the Brits, tries to warn Carruthers, but is taken prisoner and tortured. Carruthers is invited to attend in the palace a banquet and brings fifty men along, leaving the rest of the garrison behind in case he’s walking into a trap. The Great Drum of Tokot is played to announce the beginning of a five day feast, at the end of which the British are to be massacred, which is to set off the cutthroat Muslim Ghul’s great native uprising showing the Brits are beatable.

Azim learns through his spies about his uncle’s diabolical massacre plan, but the Governor refuses to believe him and won’t send troops until a Brit spy gives him the same warning later on. In the meantime Azim rides to Tokot to warn his benefactor Carruthers that he’s in danger, and taps out the distress signal on the big drum (the reason for the title) just before the British banquet guests are attacked by hidden machine guns. The warning drumbeat gives the Brits a fighting chance until the column of troops send by the Governor arrive, and Ghul’s army is easily defeated and he’s shot by a dying Mohammed Khanhat while propped up by the British soldiers and then also dies.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”