Among the two dozen or so westerns Audie Murphy made for Universal Pictures from 1950-1966, DRUMS ACROSS THE RIVER (1954) is one of the better ones, featuring a gold miners-vs.-Indians plot with Audie caught firmly in the middle. It’s fast-paced, full of action, and features a host of lively character actors, including some great villains.
Audie plays a wagon freighter in a Colorado mining town who is, initially, a witting pawn in a plot by a group of Denver mine bosses to stir up trouble with the local Ute Indians in order to get gold concessions on their land. Audie’s dad, Sam (Walter Brennan), is a friend of the Indians and, following a shootout with the Utes in which Sam is wounded, Audie meets with the Ute chief (Morris Ankrum) and his son Taos (Jay Silverheels) and negotiates a temporary peace. Unfortunately, the hired guns working for the mine bosses continue to stir things up and force Audie to aid in a stage robbery by abducting his dad and threatening to kill him. When Audie is charged with murder after the robbery, he has to keep quiet to insure Sam’s safety. In the final stretch of the movie, Audie has to break free, save his dad, subdue the bad guys, clear himself and avert a battle between Indians and cavalry. The whole story is told in 78 compact minutes.
Unassuming war hero-turned-western star Murphy was at his best in parts like this, playing an ordinary westerner caught up in a tumultuous situation and having to fight his way out and summon up the moral courage to do the right thing. He always looked best when he faced down truly formidable bad guys and here he faces one of the best western villains of the 1950s. Lyle Bettger, who had one of the most sinister smiles in movie history, specialized in corrupt western capitalists (ranchers, miners, saloon owners, railroad men) who could be utterly smooth and charming one minute and murderously evil the next. Here he’s the miners’ lead troublemaker and is joined by a great rogues’ gallery made up of future TV star Hugh O’Brian as the black-clad Morgan, who also smiles a lot, and a quartet of thugs played by frequent heavies James Anderson, George Wallace, Lane Bradford and former B-western star Bob Steele. In addition, there’s Mara Corday as a voluptuous (and very attractive) saloon girl who does some of Bettger’s dirty work.
Walter Brennan is very good in a rare turn as an upright authority figure and father. Jay Silverheels plays a sympathetic Indian and leads a band of Utes who appear to be played predominantly by actual Indians rather than the usual painted-up white extras. The Technicolor film was shot partly on the Universal backlot with some fine location work at key California western sites, including one dramatic desert spot representing the Indians’ sacred burial ground. This was director Nathan Juran’s third film with Murphy.