I had been campaigning for years for the release of Max Steiners music
from Distant Drums so I have to confess that I was predisposed to
like this album. I remember being so stunned by the music when I saw the
film back in the early 1950s, that I sat through the movie twice just to
hear the music again. (Despite Ray Fiolas rather harsh view of the
film itself, I remember thoroughly enjoying its fabulous Florida Everglades
locations and non-stop action; but, then, my critical faculties were rather
Distant Drums is one of four Steiner scores on this double album dedicated
to United States Film Productions - an independent production unit operating
on the Warner Bros. lot and having their product distributed by Warners.
Max Steiners scores are clearly under the influence of the
parent studio for they carry that unmistakable Warner Bros sound.
For Distant Drums, Max wrote one of his most exciting scores highlighted
by one of his most inspired heroic march themes - that for Captain Quincy
Wyatt (Gary Cooper looking very dashing in buckskins and sporting that
distinctive banded headgear). Supporting Wyatts theme, are other strong
themes for the well-meaning if inept Lt Tufts (played by a rather wooden
Richard Webb) and for the Everglades itself. The former is another stirring
march motif and the latter a broad melody suggesting the beauty of the location.
This melody, however, is never allowed to flower properly because it is shot
through with a Seminole motif and other menacing material to suggest lurking
danger from Indians and alligators. For comic relief, a lugubrious hornpipe
motif underscores the naval lieutenants gaffes. Spanish-type rhythms
are also heard in the Fortress episodes, sometimes assertively sometimes
furtively as when Quincys men attack by stealth. Steiners music
for the Seminole Indians is vividly and colourfully scored. As usual with
any action movie that Max scored, the music races along and the tension is
screwed up notch by notch. What a shame that the music from the last two
reels of this film has been lost. A succession of themes for this part of
the film has been reconstructed (presumably by John Morgan?)
The other major western score is that for South of St Louis (1948)
that starred Joel McCrea, Zachary Scott, Alexis Scott, Dorothy Malone, Alan
Hale and that oily villain Victor Jory. Again, this was a screenplay full
of action with a rather more dubious hero than was the norm in those days.
Steiner responds with another robust, rip-roaring score with music that races
headlong or lumbers at the pace of the covered wagons. Listening to this
music, I was once again impressed how Steiner can respond to lightening changes
of scene and mood with equally speedy yet smooth musical gear changes, and
how he can suggest so many moods and events simultaneously. The showdown
gunfight is masterly, percussive piano doubling timps to strike a stark,
dramatic rhythm as well as screwing up the tension. For me, only Tiomkin
using similar techniques in his western scores, could equal this type of
writing. The score uses a number of source tunes like Dixie and
Battle Hymn of the Republic appropriate to its Civil War setting.
Other strong points: Steiners use of Latin themes and rhythms for the
Matamoras (Mexico) settings and his striking arrangement of the popular La
Only the overture of Cloak and Dagger (1946) is included. It is a
sombre march implying intrigue and espionage before the music moves into
a more upbeat mode suggesting victory.
My Girl Tisa (1948) was more kindly received by the critics. It starred
Lili Palmer, Sam Wanamaker, Alan Hale and Akim Tamiroff. It was about an
immigrant girl in New York in the 1890s who falls for an aspiring politician.
She is threatened with deportation when her attempts to bring her father
into the country from Hungary cause conflict with a dastardly white slaver.
With the exception of Distant Drums, all these excerpts commence with
the Warner Bros. imposing fanfare composed by Max Steiner. (Max thought it
inappropriate for Distant Drums.) I make this point because
it is always a marvel how Max manages to modulate this fanfare so well and
so smoothly into the Main Titles themes of his scores. For My Girl Tisa,
Maxs main theme is one of his loveliest sweepingly romantic creations.
Immediately afterwards we hear Maxs take on the type of melody one
would hear being whistled in the streets or sung in the music halls of turn-of
the-century New York followed by caring, compassionate motifs associated
with Tisa. Darker material denotes the evil machinations of Tescu. Steiner
cleverly uses harps and zither to create a warm sentimental Hungarian atmosphere
(after all he came from Vienna so this was home territory).
The packaging for this production is excellent. Despite my little carp above,
Ray Faiola notes, including a full track-by-track analysis, are excellent.
Ray reminds us that United States Productions also released Pursued, Marjorie
Morningstar (both scored by Max Steiner) and The Court Martial of
Billy Mitchell (boldly scored by Dimitri Tiomkin). Lets hope that
Screen Archives are considering releasing these?
Finally, seeing John Morgans name amongst the credits, I wonder if
he might also consider a new modern recording - a Max Steiner compilation
album to include the best of Distant Drums, together with The
Hanging Tree and several other of Steiners western scores such
as The Oklahoma Kid, The Lion and the Horse and Silver