Southern Movie 34: “Drums in the Deep South”

By modern standards, the 1951 movie Drums in the Deep South is pure kitsch. This highly stylized, melodramatic film is set in Georgia in the 1860s, first at the onset of the Civil War and later near the end, and involves the often-seen conundrums of the Civil War: whether to fight for one’s country if it means fighting against one’s friends.

Drums in the Deep South begins, after a two-minute sequence of credits accompanied by orchestral music and titling on the screen to let us know where and when we are, with a well-dressed man with a Bryl-creem hairdo riding up on a horse to a classic Southern plantation. He speaks to his old Uncle Albert, who is lounging on a white-columned veranda, about Atlanta and the cotton business. Despite the dramatic tone of the opening, the old man’s buffoonish presence seems to be an attempt at humor, as he prattles on without noticing that both the younger man and his black butler walk away while he is talking.

After the brief interchange on the veranda, young Braxton Summers finds what he was looking for: his wife Kathy, a pretty young woman who is pulling grapes from an arbor of vines. They kiss and embrace. Despite the Georgia heat and an oncoming storm, which the two discuss, Kathy is aristocratically dressed, with impeccable hair, bright red lipstick, and not a drop of sweat on her face. However, the happy reunion is short-lived when he tells her, “Atlanta is a powder keg. They’ve called up the militia.” The young wife balks at such a possibility, saying that she has heard these ominous warnings before, but he chides her that it’s real this time. As a West Point graduate, he is being given the rank of colonel along with an order to get himself ready for active duty.

But that isn’t all of the news that he’s brought with him. The couple will have two guests for dinner: Will Denning, who Kathy calls “that Yankee boy from Boston,” and . . . Clay. Kathy becomes immediately sobered at the mention of his name, proclaiming that she won’t see him, and her husband reminds her that she can Clay had once been in love— and that she has never forgotten him. She counters by saying that the past is dead, and that there’s no sense in dredging it back up.

That night, dressed for dinner and waiting on their guests, Kathy is visibly nervous and Braxton again tries to reassure her. Will and Clay arrive, and a tense reunion follows. The two men are also young and handsome (and using plenty of Bryl-creem), and they have been in the shipping business together in New Orleans. Braxton tries to keep the conversation light, but Clay makes loaded comments to Kathy as they sip their aperitifs. Then, Clay unloads the news: he has paid off his father’s debts, bought his land back, and will be returning to live nearby. The tension grows some more when Clay gives Kathy a gift – a necklace – then the two are left alone after dinner, when Braxton and Will leave to discuss cotton seeds.

The plot thickens when Clay and Kathy are left alone to discuss their love for each other. During the conversation, Clay admits that he only came back for her. The story about the shipping business was lie— he was only a deck hand and dock worker who lifted and toted the bales himself. The story about buying back his father’s plantation was also a lie— he is flat broke. Even the story about the necklace belonging to a princess was a lie— it was his mother’s. As the thunder crashes outside, the two embrace and kiss passionately.

However, the kiss is broken up by old Uncle Albert, who bursts in the door! He is frantically shouting for Braxton, trying to be heard over the crashes of lightning and thunder, then announces, “We’re at war!” Fort Sumter has been fired upon, and Will must get back to Boston. Braxton offers for Clay to stay with him until they get called up, but Clay refuses after exchanging a brief, loving look with Kathy (right in front of her husband, mind you).

The next scene shows us the passage of time. Scenes of cloudy smoke, shadowy soldiers on horseback, and regular cannon fire are overlain by a stream of years: 1861. 1862. 1863. 1864. When we emerge from this segue, three grey-coated Confederate officers are discussing an unnamed man of immense bravery and cunning. No other man could possibly be right for the daring job they have in mind. It is Clay, who comes in the tent to receive his orders. The goal will be to halt Sherman’s march to Atlanta by destroying the railroad he is using as a supply line, and the task will be to get four cannons on top of Devil’s Mountain to bombard the railroad tracks and destroy them. Clay reminds them, when they point to the spot on the map, that he’s from near there and knows the place well. Yet, when he is advised to stay away from a place called Monrovia, Clay is startled at the news that the place is abandoned.

Clay collects his men, and they ride. Accompanied by a triumphant orchestral score, they barrel on horseback toward their duty, quickly coming to a hilltop, where they see a farmhouse that appears unoccupied. Clay and two men go down to make sure, but they find a man who has been hung by the Yankees. All we see are this feet dangling in the doorway.

More riding, more orchestra.

Soon, the small company reaches their location. Clay climbs to the top of a rocky embankment and points out Devil’s Mountain. The other soldier with him remarks that it seems like a hard climb, straight up, but Clay explains that they will go through the caverns within it. Quickly, another soldier appears, warns of a Union scouting party, and points in another direction. Clay gets his binoculars and looks: off in the distance is a white mansion. What is that,” the first soldier asks. “Monrovia,” answers Clay.

During their nighttime climb into the cavern, after a few weak attempts at comic relief, Clay admits that he lied earlier and doesn’t not actually know the way to the top. However, their assignment is still there to be completed: to get cannons on top of Devil’s Mountain. The men struggle with huge guns, then Clay gets the news that an old man was seen down at the house. Clay knows it is Uncle Albert. Monrovia is not deserted after all!

Clay then sneaks past enemy lines and gets to the plantation house. It is now occupied by Union troops, who are nasty and surly. One breaks a window in Uncle Albert’s face, and another seems to be using shirt-mending as a ruse for pursuing Kathy. Clay evades the blue-clad men, however, and gets inside where Uncle Albert helps him to rendezvous with Kathy.

Under the grape arbor when Kathy embraced her husband at the beginning of the movie, she now huddles in the darkness with her true love Clay. The two have a brief, sentimental conversation about their relationship, before they skedaddle away so Kathy can help the men to navigate the caverns and get those cannons up to the top of Devil’s Mountain!

When they return, one of the men has fallen in the caverns and another has gotten lost looking for him. Clay is concerned, but not concerned enough to divert the mission. With Kathy’s help, they’ll get it done! During the climb, another man falls and is lost, along with one of the cannons. By the time they stop to rest, Clay apprises us that they’re down to sixteen men and three cannons. Kathy estimates that it will take three or four days for the Union soldiers to fix the railroad tracks after the last attack, so the Confederates have some time. Before she leaves for home – with a passionate kiss – Clay and Kathy agree that she will signal the men from her bedroom window when the train is passing through, so their attack can have maximum effect. On her way out, Kathy also finds the lost man Jerry.

The next day, the Confederates are hard at work on the cannons. The injured man is healing, and the lost man has been recovered. But back at the house, things are more tense. Kathy is approached by the Union soldier who wanted his shirt mended, and it looks for a moment as though he will attempt to force himself on her. However, he softens and begins to speak kindly to her. He was a farmer in Illinois who was drafted, leaving behind a wife and two sons. He just wants to finish up in Georgia and get back home. In imparting these facts, he also shares that they won’t be leaving Monrovia in a few days— it will be that afternoon when the train arrives to pick up all of the men. Kathy senses that she must act quickly to signal the Confederates about the train, and she sends the Union soldier away by asking to see pictures of his children, which he has to leave to get.

Here, at the halfway point in the movie, the drama intensifies. Kathy runs upstairs to her bedroom to signal from the window, but when the Union soldier returns, picture in hand, to find her gone, he searches the house for her. As Kathy stands at the window flashing a mirror in the sun, a blue arm grabs her and pulls her away. The soldier berates her for her deceit, and backhands her across the face. Suddenly, we hear gunfire, and the Union soldier falls. Uncle Albert stands, slack-mouthed and pistol in hand, as the soldier droops from his wound. But he gets in one shot— Uncle Albert takes it in the gut and begins to fall, too. Kathy runs to Uncle Albert, but the wound will be too much for the old man. Before he dies, he points out to the Kathy that the Confederates got her signal.

The problem on the mountaintop is: the cannons are not yet in place. They will have to work furiously to be ready to fire on the train. Once they are assembled, the first two guns will take aim on the first train, Clay orders, and the third gun is to aim for the second train. The men wait patiently as the train rolls through the California hills— I mean, the Georgia mountains.

The barrage of gunfire goes on for a few moments of the film. They miss at first, but roll the cannons around, and eventually hit their targets. Mission accomplished. In the cavern that evening, Clay congratulates the men, but warns them that retaliation is coming.

Back at the house, the Union soldiers are preparing to leave Monrovia and to fight again. A soldier informs Kathy that he will be taking Albert’s body to bury it. Kathy also asks what happened to the man Albert shot, and she is informed that he died, too. She asks for his address, so she can write his family a letter, and oddly that request is honored.

Now, it is time for the big battle. The Union troops have to get the Confederates off the mountaintop, and Will Denning returns to the story to lead the Northern troops. They enter the caverns and begin the treacherous, twisting climb, but are met by Confederates who run them out.

At Monrovia, Will Denning is confronted by his superiors who want him to get the Rebs off the mountain. He retorts that he had previously advised his own side to occupy Devil’s Mountain but they didn’t listen. He is then told that they have a huge, long-range gun, usually used by the navy, on its way by rail. The gun can blow the whole top off of that mountain.

After conducting is business, Will speaks with Kathy. He tells her that he and Clay almost avoided the war entirely, but Clay had to come back to Georgia. Will thought it was because of his father’s plantation, but he knows now that it was because of her. Will also tells Kathy that Braxton is alive and well and free, which she is glad to hear (for some unknown reason, considering she is back in love with her old flame). Will tells her that she is still technically “the enemy” so she must remain on house arrest, if she is to stay at Monrovia.

Will then directs his men as the big gun arrives. They will shoot at the Confederates from a range that the mountaintop cannons can’t reach. Then, under cover of darkness, Kathy sneaks out of the house and heads to the caverns where her main man and his soldiers are stationed. Despite Will’s fidelity to her, she betrays him and shares the Union plan. She begs Clay to flee, and the men debate how to handle the oncoming attack. Clay accompanies her back to the house, and she proclaims that she’ll never see him again. But Clay retorts that he isn’t ready to die.

The Union attack comes, and it is as bad as they feared, though Clay is still standing.

Yet, the Union soldiers’ plans change when they get news that they aren’t getting all of the equipment they’d hoped for. One of the officers remarks that they have plenty of powder but not enough guns, to which Will responds that they’ll load up the caverns and blow off the mountaintop from the inside. As they’re talking and planning, Will runs his hand across the piano keys, but no sound comes out. He had earlier played a few notes on those keys, which sounded normal, and now recognizing that the piano’s wires are gone, he knows that Kathy has betrayed him. The final decision is made to blow up the inside of Devil’s Mountain.

Back in Kathy’s bedroom, where she is now under guard, she laments the outcome that she knows his coming: Will will kill Clay. However, she tries to persuade the corporal who guards her to let her talk to Will Denning. When the attack was planned, Will didn’t know that his old friend Clay is leading the Confederates on the mountaintop. She believes that she can get them to surrender and that she can talk Will out of the blast if he knows.

The corporal concedes and lets Kathy speak to Will, who is at first resistant but allows her to talk. Then, Kathy gets her chance to ask Clay to surrender— to Will. As Kathy climbs the cavern, though, a Confederate soldier who is guarding the entrance shoots her with his rifle! Dying from the gunshot, she pulls herself up to the place where her love and his men are, and she warns them. Clay orders his men to go down the mountain, but he stays with Kathy. Ultimately, the powder is ignited and Devil’s Mountain is blown up, with the two passionate lovers still up there together. In a final twist, Will realizes after it is too late his friends did not come down with the others.

Drums in the Deep South ends with this text on the screen: “Out of the chaos of brother against brother, came a new realization of our common destiny,” and “From the smoke and debris and the sacrifice, a new meaning of unity was forged for the United States of America, indivisible, now and forever.” The End.

By modern standards, movies like Drums from the Deep South are phony and cheesy. Compared to current representations of the Civil War, especially the battle scenes, these sentimental portrayals are sanitized for public consumption. However, to put the movie in the context of its time, the presentation makes more sense: this is the Civil War as shown through the lens of post-World War II prosperity. This wasn’t made to be accurate, but to send a message that the recently victorious United States has always been “indivisible,” even in its darkest hour.

Notwithstanding the unrealistic nature, the problems with Drums in the Deep South, though, are real and numerous. It isn’t a very good movie, in part because the storyline is flawed. Braxton is prominent in the beginning then disappears, and is also so weak a man that he allows his wife to fall into her former lover’s arms. It’s hard to have sympathy for Kathy, who is going behind her husband’s back. It’s also hard to have sympathy for Clay, who lies. The near-constant orchestral music creates more melodrama than drama, too.

Finally, I have one other nuanced criticism, something that may bother me more than it bothers other people: if you’re going to make a movie that’s set in the Deep South, know the difference between the landscape of the Georgia and the landscape of California. It’s really annoying. I’ve seen this problem in 1966’s The Black Klansman and in 1977’s Moonshine County Express, and it was in this movie too. I realize that it costs money to shoot on location, but come on, man!

As a document about the Deep South, this film falls flat, obviously. The caricatures are borrowed, and the sentimental styling is kitschy, though it is mildly interesting that the ordinary Union soldiers are the villains. But perhaps most of all, popular films like this one make the most pitiful thematic attempts at exposing (again) the unfortunate, everybody-loses, brother-versus-brother nature of the Civil War. We all know how the Civil War went and how it ended – there’s no mystery about that – so trying to create tension using cardboard stereotypes in a story we already know . . . it just doesn’t work.

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