A Thunder of Drums

In the 1961 adventure A Thunder of Drums, a young cavalry lieutenant, Curtis McQuade (George Hamilton), struggles to win the respect of his uncompromising captain, Stephen Maddocks (Richard Boone). Stationed at isolated Fort Canby in Arizona—where Indians pose a continuous threat—McQuade suffers under the tutelage of Maddocks, who bears a mysterious grudge against him. Curtis also stirs up trouble by doggedly attempting to reconnect with his old sweetheart, Tracey Hamilton (Luana Patten), soon to be married to Lt. Gresham (James Douglas).

After Gresham catches McQuade and Tracey kissing, he and a band of troopers go missing on an expedition into the wilderness. Maddocks leads McQuade and the rest of the cavalry out into the desert to search for the wayward soldiers; here, McQuade begins to suspect that the captain’s hostility toward him derives from the fact that his own father was once Maddocks’s commander, and that the elder McQuade ruined Maddocks’s career as punishment for a military blunder. Once the troopers discover that Indians have slaughtered Gresham and his men, McQuade is quick to blame himself for Gresham’s death, believing that his infidelity with Tracey served as a distraction to Gresham. While Maddocks denies McQuade’s initial request for vengeance against the murderous Indians, the young lieutenant is able to prove himself to his captain when he agrees to lead a squad of men into a ravine to act as bait. McQuade succeeds in drawing out the Apaches, with Maddocks and the rest of the cavalry arriving on the scene to wipe out the Indians. After the battle, the captain confirms that his animosity toward McQuade did indeed stem from his turbulent relationship with the young man’s father.

Upon returning to the fort, McQuade learns that Tracey is heading back to St. Louis; she can no longer bear to be around him, as she blames herself for what happened to her fiancé. After she departs, Maddocks reconciles with McQuade and encourages him to accept the lonely life of a soldier.

While a substantial amount of screen time is devoted to the romance between McQuade and Tracey, the heart of A Thunder of Drums is in Boone’s portrayal of Maddocks. Behind his angry exterior, Boone subtly conveys the soldier’s suffering over his past as well as his razor-sharp understanding of how his enemies operate. Other standout performances include Arthur O’Connell as Maddocks’s friend, the seasoned old Sgt. Rodermill, and a young Charles Bronson as the leering but ultimately brave Hanna.

Composer Harry Sukman’s score adds considerable drive to the film’s ponderous first half with a heroic, brassy march for the troopers. The material not only serves as a gung-ho call to arms for the soldiers, but as a lamenting commentary on their loneliness, particularly during the more intimate scenes between Maddocks and McQuade. In addition to the requisite militaristic material, a suitably angst-ridden love theme plays up McQuade’s forbidden relationship with Tracey, with an impassioned “B” section that frequently underscores their kissing. The score’s other principal theme is a disturbed, ghostly melody for Laurie Detweiler (Tammy Marihugh), a traumatized young girl rescued by the cavalry after Indians kill her family; Laurie’s theme gradually becomes more tonal as the girl heals and bonds with Tracey. The film’s villainous Indians receive a battery of percussion that includes tom-toms, timpani, field drum, bass drum and turtle rattle. For the brutal battle sequence at the film’s climax, Sukman combines this material with aggressive variations on his march theme.

Sukman (1912–1984) had recently won an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (on 1960’s Song Without End, shared with Columbia’s Morris Stoloff) and was soon to embark on a successful run of TV scoring at M-G-M, particularly on Dr. Kildare (FSMCD Vol. 12, No. 6). Variety noted of his score for A Thunder of Drums: “Harry Sukman has composed a vigorous, listenable score, especially rousing as it accompanies the main titles.” The Hollywood Reporter was equally complimentary, writing: “Harry Sukman’s score avoids the clichés of the genre and is often quite brilliant, his use of a guitar against a brawl, for instance, being witty counterpointing.” And Limelight offered, “Harry Sukman’s score has dash, menace and variety.”

Disc 3 of this collection features Sukman’s complete score to A Thunder of Drums remixed from the original 35mm three-track magnetic film. For cues involving a large amount of percussion (for example, the “Main Title,” “Oat” and “The Attack”), the percussion was recorded separately (during its own session a few days before the main orchestral sessions) and overdubbed with the orchestra—creating a formidable size to the titular “drums” although adding to the ambient noise in certain passages.

1. The Rape
Eerie strings and winds play through an establishing shot of an isolated cabin, surrounded by miles of Arizona desert. As a band of Indians burst into the shack and assault the unsuspecting family inside, Sukman unleashes a dissonant theme for the perpetrators on imitative brass and strings over tribal percussion. A rippling piano motive denotes the youngest child, Laurie Detweiler (Tammy Marihugh), looking on in shock while the Indians rape and murder her mother and sister.
Main Title
The opening titles play over footage of cavalry from Fort Canby traveling through the desert on horseback; Sukman introduces his main theme, a bold march for the troopers, developing it over militaristic percussion. The composer weaves the “B” section of his forthcoming love theme (marked by its yearning octave leaps) into the cue at 1:08.
2. Who Goes There?
The troopers reach the cabin and discover the slain Detweiler women along with Laurie (alive but rendered mute, due to shock). Sukman bitterly develops the main theme as they collect the bodies and bring them—as well as the corpses of four dead troopers—back to Fort Canby. Perfect-fifth fanfares mark a transition to the fort, with the main theme continuing as the troopers arrive. Grim minor-triadic material sounds as the men enter the fort, before the sinister Indian theme resurfaces for the men delivering Laurie to a doctor; henceforth, Sukman will associate the melody with the emotionally damaged girl. The main theme receives a somber treatment as Capt. Stephen Maddocks (Richard Boone) watches from inside his quarters as the men unload the corpses. The cue closes with a rising scalar line when he admits Lt. Thomas Gresham (James Douglas) into his office to learn which of his men died at the hands of Indians.
3. The Funeral
Sukman tragically outlines the main theme once Maddocks advises Gresham to reconsider his impending marriage to Tracey Hamilton (Luana Patten).
Step Inside
Solo field drum sounds during a funeral service for the slain troopers. The percussion continues as inexperienced young Lieut. Curtis McQuade (George Hamilton) first arrives at the post for duty.
4. Tracey
After Maddocks gives McQuade a hostile welcome, Hanna (Charles Bronson) shows the new lieutenant to his quarters. Sukman introduces a lyrical, folk-like love theme for strings and woodwinds when Curtis reunites with his former lover, Tracey, who resides in the adjacent building with her fiancé, Gresham. Although she is initially angry to see him—he left her without saying goodbye—the two give in to their passion and kiss, to a statement of the love theme’s aching B section. The material abruptly cuts off when Lieutenant Porter (Richard Chamberlain) enters and interrupts them.
Go Away
After Porter threatens to tell Gresham of Tracey’s infidelity, an outburst of agitated strings and brass sounds for McQuade dismissing him. The love theme’s B section returns, now bittersweet, as Tracey resists Curtis’s overtures and implores him to leave her alone.
5. Meet Miss Hamilton
While informing McQuade of his duties, Gresham “introduces” the lieutenant to Tracey. Sukman’s love material captures the pain between McQuade and Tracey as they pretend they do not know one another. Militaristic brass closes the cue for a transition to a line of troopers receiving their pay.
No Payment
In the line, Hanna is denied his money as punishment for having lost military equipment and for other infractions; he now owes the army $14. Comical winds and percussion underline his predicament.
6. To an Asylum
As Laurie blankly roams the fort at night, her rippling piano line surrounds unstable readings of her primary theme. McQuade and Tracey comfort the girl before an officer collects her and announces that she is being sent to an asylum in the East.
Peeping Tom
Foreboding low-register strings and woodwinds sound as Hanna overhears McQuade making plans to see Tracey. Suspenseful developments of the love theme play through a transition to Hanna spying on Tracey outside her window at night, in hopes of catching her with McQuade.
7. The Fight
Hanna baits McQuade by revealing that he saw the lieutenant with Tracey the previous night. For the brutal fistfight that follows, Sukman unleashes violent rhythmic material for brass, strings and percussion. The cue ends as McQuade stands victorious over a fallen Hanna, with Maddocks arriving on the scene to scold both soldiers.
8. Sentry’s Murder
When an Indian sneaks into the fort at night, sporadic tom-toms, timpani and field drum support lurching strings and horns for the intruder’s murder of a sentry. Maddocks and McQuade pursue the Indian outside the fort with biting fragments of the main theme sounding over the foundation of percussion. The Indian reaches his escape horse and rides off into the distance, leaving the troopers behind. (The opening 0:28 of this cue does not appear in the film.)
9. Well Mister
Tracey grows conflicted over her forthcoming marriage to Gresham. At a formal party in the fort, McQuade follows her outside and the love theme builds to its impassioned B section as they kiss. The material takes a sour turn when Gresham shows up and smacks McQuade, before the love theme returns to its aching romantic roots as Gresham asks Tracey if the kiss was consensual; when she refuses to answer, he walks her home, leaving McQuade to face Maddocks, who has witnessed the entire exchange.
10. God Speed to You
The main theme receives a tough, militaristic reprise for brass, strings and snare drum as Gresham leads a group of troopers out of the fort as a scouting party. After watching the men depart, Tracey and a drunken McQuade share a moment and consider the impact of their affair on Gresham. The main theme melts into the love material, which briefly turns bitter when Tracey attacks McQuade and his background, referring to his family as breeders of “casual gentlemen killers.” After McQuade heads back to his quarters, a ghostly version of Laurie’s theme underscores the girl stepping outside and facing Tracey. McQuade watches from his doorway as Tracey approaches Laurie; the two connect, and the girl actually smiles, marked by a newly warm interpretation of her melody. Tracey wraps her sweater around the girl, with a solemn reading of the main theme sounding as she brings Laurie inside. McQuade retreats into his room and pours himself another drink, with a taunting snare drum building to the moment he reconsiders and angrily throws his glass to the floor.
11. Oat
When Gresham’s party goes missing, Maddocks and McQuade lead an expedition to find them. An urgent rendition of the main theme underscores the troopers riding out into the desert. Martial timpani and snare drum are joined by overlapping statements of the main theme’s opening perfect fourth in an unused passage (0:22–2:13) for a private discussion between McQuade and Sergeant Rodermill (Arthur O’Connell), who have temporarily broken away from the other troopers; McQuade voices his concern that Maddocks is hazing him because his father—whom the Captain once served under—ruined his career. Tribal tom-toms support threatening Indian-flavored material for winds as McQuade and Rodermill come across horse tracks. McQuade determines them to be Comanche when he discovers the tribe’s marker and oats—possibly Gresham’s—on the ground.
This Is Your Bivouac
Sukman develops a driving rendition of the main theme after a transition to Maddocks and the rest of the troopers traveling through the desert. The cue winds down when they meet up with McQuade and Rodermill and decide to set up camp for the night. McQuade wonders if there is a dead coyote in the vicinity. He proves to be wrong when Maddocks summons him over to a ditch…
The Bodies
A swell of percussion leads to angst-ridden cries for brass and strings as McQuade sees the slain corpses of Gresham and his troopers in the ditch. Maddocks scolds the younger officer for his misidentifying the smell and for presuming that the oats he found belonged to Gresham. Field drum rolls play over a grave, low-string pedal point through a transition to the troopers burying Gresham and his men.
13. Not a Chance
At the campsite, the love material sounds on English horn and strings for Maddocks listening as McQuade recalls the night when Gresham caught him kissing Tracey. A fateful rendition of the main theme gives way to a gloomy reading of the love theme’s B section when Maddocks confirms McQuade’s fear that his behavior likely distracted Gresham and played a role in his death. After Maddocks forbids McQuade from going after the murderous Indians, coy woodwinds sound over low strings and sparse percussion as the captain questions Rodermill and tries to determine whether the troopers were slaughtered by Comanches or Apaches (Gresham’s throat was pierced by an Apache arrow). When Maddocks figures out the answer he refuses to share it with McQuade; the cue closes with a reprise of the rising scalar line from “Who Goes There?”
14. Thru the Underbrush
As Maddocks leads the troopers through some underbrush, Sukman brews suspense with a mix of tom-toms, field drum, piccolo snare drum, bass drum and timpani. (This cue does not appear in the finished film.)
15. Stay Alive Son
Maddocks instructs McQuade to bring a small group of troopers to a ravine and act as bait for the Indians. A warm outlining of the main theme underscores McQuade’s respectful salute after the captain tells him, “Stay alive, son.” Propulsive, chattering developments of the melody for brass and strings play through a subsequent montage of McQuade and his troopers riding towards the ravine.
16. Take Cover
After the troopers set up camp in the ravine, they pretend to relax. As McQuade surveys the surrounding mountains, Sukman creates tension with low strings and woodwinds and delicate percussion (including turtle rattle). When a small rock falls into the ravine, the troopers arm themselves and take cover.
The Attack
A barrage of percussion and winds sounds when a band of Apaches emerges and assaults the troopers with arrows and gunfire. The soldiers return fire, picking off several of the Indians. Sukman plays through the action with frantic triplet-based material, hinting at developments of the main theme from “Sentry’s Murder” and emphasizing quartal harmonies for the Apaches. The cue dies down as the Indians retreat into the rocks.
Shift Position
For a moment of calm after the first attack, the score reprises suspenseful music from “Take Cover.” The material continues as McQuade cautiously leads his men across a river and positions them at a ledge; this action is intercut with footage of Maddocks leading his troopers to the ravine.
Second Attack
As the Apaches strike again, militaristic percussion supports the aggressive triplet-based material from “The Attack.” Pungent brass developments of the main theme sound when Maddocks and his men arrive on the scene and join the fight. The cue drives to a violent climax as the troopers wipe out the Apaches.
17. Nobody Dies
Aching unison strings climb as Maddocks dashes across the stream to find the battle’s lone casualty among the troopers: his friend, Rodermill. Grunting brass and percussion mark the revelation of Rodermill’s body, with mournful winds sounding as Trooper Eddy (Duane Eddy) laments his death. Tragic developments of the main theme surround a quotation of “Taps” for Maddocks standing over Rodermill and reverently speaking his name aloud. Sinking low-register strings close the cue before the captain commends McQuade on a job well done.
18. A Bad Mistake
When McQuade apologizes to Maddocks for his previous contentious behavior, a clarinet reading of the main theme gives way to yearning developments of the tune as the captain makes peace with the younger officer; he reveals that Curtis’s father did ruin his career as punishment for a mistake, but asks that he send General McQuade his respects the next time he writes him. The cue assumes an optimistic tone with fateful brass over a bouncing bass line for a transition to the troopers arriving back at the fort.
19. Good-bye Laurie
Maddocks learns that Tracey will be taking Laurie to her aunt in St. Louis, rather than to an asylum. A tender setting of Laurie’s theme sounds on woodwinds and strings as Maddocks bids the girl farewell; after she musters a smile, he affectionately touches her cheek.
Good-bye Tracey
McQuade asks Tracey not to leave, but she cannot help but blame herself for Gresham’s death. Aching string developments of the love theme underscore their exchange with the B section denoting their final kiss. A tortured modulation of this material sounds for Maddocks observing as Tracey leaves McQuade and boards a stagecoach.
20. End Title
After Maddocks and McQuade watch the stage depart, the captain offers the younger officer a piece of wisdom: “Bachelors make the best soldiers. All they have to lose is their loneliness.” Lamenting variations on the main theme underscore Maddocks’s revelation that he lost his wife and three little girls to smallpox. The love theme’s B section plays to the newfound camaraderie between the two officers after they resolve to drink together. As McQuade leaves to fetch liquor, a celebratory climax of brass, strings and percussion sounds under the end title card for a contented Maddocks retreating to his quarters.

Source Music

Tracks 21–25 present the source music recorded for A Thunder of Drums. These cues are noteworthy in that they were composed and performed by legendary rock guitarist Duane Eddy (b. 1938), who appears in the film (in one of his infrequent acting roles) as Trooper Eddy. The artist recorded his guitar tracks prior to filming (on April 19, 1961).

21. Second Waltz
This source waltz for banjo and guitar plays at the Fort Canby party when McQuade dances with the lovely Camden Yates (Carole Wells).
22. Two Step
After Maddocks and McQuade have a heated confrontation outside the party, a few seconds of this upbeat country dance play when the captain rejoins the festivities. The piece is briefly heard again when a settler bursts into the room and announces that his family has been killed by Indians.
23. Water From a Bad Well
Earlier in the film, Trooper Eddy plays a laid-back country tune on his guitar while the other soldiers get drunk.
24. Ballad of Camden Yates
Trooper Eddy performs a second relaxed source piece on his guitar.
25. Fort Canby Dance
This harmonically static waltz is the first piece of source music featured at the Fort Canby party. —