The Drum (1938)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 11 July (1.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The Drum is one of those films that holds up the British Empire as a really good thing. Set in the north-west frontier of the British Raj, the British overlords are benevolent and decent. The Indians are either deferential and admire their masters, or untrustworthy and plot endlessly to overthrow them. Needless to add, the latter are The Drum’s villains, to a man devious pieces of work, whereas the good natives are represented by the open, friendly face of Sabu, for whom this film was something of a vehicle.

Selar Shaik Sabu was an orphaned 12-year old, working as an elephant driver in Mysore after the death of his father, when by chance he was discovered by a passing British film crew that just happened to be looking for someone to play the lead role in a film called Elephant Boy. It was a product of Alexander Korda’s company, London Films, and Korda wasted no time in getting Sabu to sign a contract. Over the next few years, the youngster would appear in a number of Korda pictures, from the very good (The Thief of Baghdad, Jungle Book) to the likes of The Drum, a by the numbers flick that glorified all things British. The timing of the film’s release was no coincidence. War was on the horizon and Korda decided what the public needed was a picture that exemplified the virtues of the home nation, whilst painting a positive picture of the Empire to our friends across the ocean would be no bad thing.

Unfortunately, The Drum – which was directed by Korda’s brother, Zoltan; another sibling, Vincent, was heavily involved in the production design – isn’t the best made of advertisements. Technically, it’s absolutely fine, though the enormous cast of extras was deployed in Harlech rather than India and featured an army of ‘blacked up’ faces, which is never the most comfortable thing to see. That said, people offended by such sights could do with being reminded that The Drum was very much a product of its time, when such antics were commonplace. Raymond Massey in make-up is still Raymond Massey, which means he’s as charismatic a villain as one could find in contemporary cinema and remains one of the film’s more watchable elements. Indeed it’s kind of strange, given what Massey’s revolting prince gets up to, not to feel a little sympathy for someone who simply wants to gain independence for his people.

The story is precisely the yarn of stiff upper lips getting the better of an undisciplined force of natives one might expect to find. Where it suffers is in a pace that can at best be described as leisurely. Considering the narrative moves in an obvious direction, it takes an age for anything to happen, and whilst in more skilled hands this might have involved a cranking up of the tension, in The Drum it’s simply a case of waiting around. Leading the roll call of fine British actors is Roger Livesey’s kind-hearted Captain Carruthers. Livesey’s presence is pretty much a guarantee of quality, but there’s little for him to work with in the straightforward, decent character he plays here. Valerie Hobson is elegant and resourceful as his dutiful wife, and Francis L Sullivan turns up occasionally as the Governor.

Sabu, who was top billed, vanishes for large swathes of the film. Playing a young prince who’s usurped and on the run, the main point of interest is his effort to warn the British of Massey’s plans against them, which is where the drum of the title gets involved. This he learns from a young drummer boy in a scene that is both mawkish and almost pre-designed to give the young Sabu an opportunity to act someone of a similar age off the screen.

A film for viewers with the most chest-beating of dispositions then, though the inevitable battle, when it finally happens, makes for decent viewing, surprisingly for its era getting across the confusing mess of conflict, whilst Livesey turns out to be a hardcore man of action when he gets his hands on a machine gun.

The Drum: **

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