Directed By: William Cameron Menzies
Starring: James Craig, Barbara Payton, Guy Madison
Trivia: The King Bros., who produced this film, borrowed James Craig from M-G-M for the production
By the time he directed 1951’s Drums in the Deep South, William Cameron Menzies was already an award-winning Production Designer, having lent his creative talents to a number of early films like The Thief of Bagdad in 1924 and D.W. Griffith’s 1930 biopic of Abraham Lincoln. So respected was his work that David O. Selznick hired him to design Gone with the Wind, going so far as to send a memo to his crew informing them that, in matters of set decoration, “Menzies is the final word”. Unlike Selznick’s extravagant 1939 film, Drums in the Deep South was made on a limited budget, but with Menzies at the helm, the picture ends up feeling a lot bigger than it actually is.
The movie opens in 1861, on the eve of the U.S. Civil War. Braxton Summers (Craig Stevens) returns to his vast Atlanta plantation to tell his wife, Kathy (Barbara Payton), that he’s invited two of his former West Point classmates, Clay Clayburn (James Craig) and Will Denning (Guy Madison), over for dinner (knowing full well Kathy and Clay were once in love with each other). But their meal is cut short when Kathy’s uncle, Albert (Taylor Holmes), rushes in to announce that war has broken out. Jumping ahead several years to 1864, we learn that Clay and Will, who were the best of friends, are now fighting on opposite sides, with Clay a Major in the Confederate Army and Will an officer for the Union. Unbeknownst to the two, their paths are about to cross once again.
In an effort to slow down Sherman’s march through Georgia, Clay is ordered to lead a platoon to the top of Devil’s Mountain, which overlooks a railroad track the North has been using to shuttle supplies to Sherman’s army. Aided by several cannons, Clay’s men manage to destroy a Union train, and in response, his old pal Will is sent in to prevent any further damage. As it stands, neither Clay nor Will realize they’re facing off against one another. Will they learn the truth before it’s too late?
As mentioned above, Drums in the Deep South wasn’t nearly as large as Gone with the Wind, yet director Menzies pulls out all the stops, making it feel every bit as ambitious as its famous predecessor. Acting as the film's Production Designer as well, Menzies’ eye for detail is present in every lavish set and period costume, and he even employs a number of matte paintings (including the wide shots of Devil’s Mountain) to help enlarge the picture’s scope. Dmitri Tiomkin’s grandiose score is another of the movie’s strength, using traditional tunes like Dixie and Battle Hymn of the Republic to accentuate the more dramatic sequences.
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Drums in the Deep South was a small motion picture; there are more scenes of men preparing for battle then there are of actual combat. That Menzies managed to make the film seem as big as he did was a clear sign of his talent, leaving me to wonder what Drums in the Deep South might’ve been had he had the deep pockets of David O. Selznick behind him.