Saturday, April 30, 2011

Drango (1957): Revenge and Redemption

An exceptionally somber but rather interesting post-Civil War movie delineates the bitter strife that ensues when Northern troops occupy a devastated Georgia town in the rural South after the surrender at Appomattox. The period of the film, which has rarely been addressed in American movies, was the subject of an intriguing story with a potentially rich tapestry documenting how thin the social fabric can be when a people are defeated. The film, released by United Artists in 1957, remains more than a bit threadbare but still worthwhile.

Drango (1957-Hal Barlett & Jules Bricken) might be categorized as a Western, since it has many of the hallmarks of the genre, with horses, outlaw gangs, and a man (Jeff Chandler) trying to bring order and the rule of law into a chaotic situation without much help from the citizenry. Drango often plays like a fairly simple oater, but there is a bleakness that hangs over the film that seemed to me to have an echo of the grey-spirited films that sifted through the ashes of Germany after World War II for story material, (The Search, Germany, Year Zero, and The Big Lift, Decision Before Dawn, and Kapò). Those were all more polished and powerful films, though this low budget movie does capture some of the rawness of the psychological war wounds on both sides of the sectarian American conflict, centering on actions between April, 1865 and New Year's Day, 1866.

The hopeless air lingering after the recent götterdämmerung that was visited upon the looted, burned, and bludgeoned Confederate forces and civilians at the hands of the Northern Army, particularly during the notorious march of Sherman's troops to the sea, has reduced the town of Kennesaw Pass in rural Georgia to a nearly stone-age state, with desperate human beings sometimes reduced to barbarism.

The film's exteriors are confined largely to one appropriately stark street set, though a few scenes were filmed on location at Greenwood Plantation, a Louisiana estate that still stands today. However, it appears that cinematographer James Wong Howe strove for realism in framing the black and white film, reinforcing the grittiness of the settings, with little of the customary moonlight and magnolias atmosphere that many studio era films convey when set in the South of this period--even in the scenes set at the plantation. The unfinished look to the buildings and interiors reinforces the feeling that the town has been stripped of all gentleness, and perhaps even its civilized soul. This is the atmosphere that greets the Union officer with the appropriately macho name of Major Clint Drango (Jeff Chandler), who arrives with only one aide, Captain Banning (John Lupton).  

When Drango initially tries to establish civil order by enlisting the support of the town's most prominent citizens, Judge Allen and Chad Allen, played by Donald Crisp and Ronald Howard as father and son, he is rebuffed. Ronald Howard, playing a bitter variation of Ashley Wilkes, the part that his father, Leslie Howard reluctantly played in GWTW, foments active rebellion through a secretive vigilante movement. In the absence of any other organized society prior to Drango's arrival, those under Allen's command assert some semblance of order, imposing rough vigilante justice on those who show signs of reconciliation with their conquerors.The handiwork of these night riders is seen in the first few minutes of the movie as they deal with a longtime resident (Morris Ankrum), who was an alleged Northern sympathizer in their midst. The violent lynching that results from Drango's belief that the citizens themselves should be trusted to conduct a fair trial for the man steels the Yankee's resolve to bring about peace in this community without force. Such a shocking event might have persuaded a more realistic man to choose a different course of imposing order on a community in disarray, but Jeff Chandler's apparently naive Maj. Drango persists in his efforts to get the town fathers to help him, despite the divisions and reprisal this may bring about in the town so recently burned and plundered.
Above: Morris Ankrum, a Union sympathizer tried by his neighbors, gets little help from Chandler, to the disgust of Joanne Dru, who plays his daughter.

The film makes a point of delineating the callous attitude of the Union Army brass toward the plight of the townspeople. Milburn Stone plays a colonel who is reluctant to send any food or clothing to the isolated villagers, adopting a harder attitude toward the defeated than his junior offices. Stone's coldness reflected a real change in the North's stance toward the South after Lincoln's assassination, an event that is only touched on briefly in the movie. Lincoln's forgiving attitude toward the defeated is echoed in Drango's desire to help the town recover, though he is eventually revealed to have more complex motives.

Above: Chad Allen (Ronald Howard, center) leading his rebels.

Chandler's character is reluctant to impose his power militarily, preferring to "appeal to the better angels" of these former rebels' natures. His lack of military force seems to doom his efforts, as quickly becomes apparent at a meeting with the sullen people he needs to corral into cooperating with him if they are to survive at all through the coming winter. Maj. Drango also has other, more personal reasons for wanting to develop a relationship with these demoralized people, since he is haunted by the brutal acts of war that he participated in during the recent conflict.

The urgency of the town's position becomes increasingly clear, as the poignant case of a family of orphaned children indicates that the keen humiliation and frustration expressed by the townspeople is the least of their problems as whole-scale starvation is a looming possibility in the coming months, with the passive-aggressive residents refusing to help one another while martial law exists. The people, whose willful self-destruction seems rooted in shame as well as resentment toward the representatives of the  point is reinforced by the grimly determined, angry adolescent boy who has been eking out an existence after both parents were victims of the war and disease and starvation that resulted from it.  One particular scene, dealing with the fight to the death between this young patriarch and another starving boy over an emaciated chicken encapsulates the desperate situation quite well.
Above: A compassionate Jeff Chandler trying to win hearts and minds among the younger citizens.

Drango intervenes in the fight, and discovers the plight of the boys siblings, resolving to try to communicate with them. Despite their suspicions, the starving, almost feral children are gradually coaxed out of their shack by the officer when he approaches their home with clothing and food on Christmas morning. The scene, avoiding the maudlin potential of such a moment, was played in almost total silence for several minutes. This sequence allowed Chandler to reflect his emotional response to their plight with only his expressive face as he gently helps the children to dress in the clothing. Seeing this and a series of sincere acts by the Union soldier gradually melts some of the opposition.
Donald Crisp chatting with Ronald Howard on the set of Drango (1957).

Chandler and especially the durable Donald Crisp (who was in the sixth decade of his nearly 70 year film career) both rise above the limitations of the underwritten material, putting flesh on the bones of their shadowy roles who lack dimension at times. This is particularly evident as Chandler struggles with his conscience, and the character's inner turmoil seems to have left him simply stubbornly blind to the seemingly hopeless and extreme situation. Drango's halting explanation for his actions is revealed almost too late in the story to have the impact it should have. Other actors--particularly Julie London and John Lupton--appear to suffer from rather uneven direction from Bartlett and his co-director, Jules Bricken. Composer Elmer Bernstein, in an extremely busy period scoring films, when he produced music for 14 films in a two year period, wrote a minimalist score that complemented the desolate atmosphere of the story. Bernstein also provided that indispensable fixture of pop culture in the '50s, a song that might hit the charts. In this case he wrote a morosely twangy song for the movie with lyrics by Alan Alch and sung by cowboy actor Rex Allen.

Joanne Dru, wearing little makeup and exuding none of her customary glamour, stands out dramatically as she plays the angry daughter of the Northern sympathizer, (Morris Ankrum, a '50s movie stalwart). Dru may earn the best actor laurel in this film, and her severe, high-cheekboned beauty is evident despite her character's circumstances, but when an obligatory romance with Chandler is inserted into the plot, this seems highly unlikely. This turn of events coming out of nowhere is more outlandish given the fact that Dru has reason to blame Chandler's mishandling of several situations in the town for causing the death of her father. Dru, whose relatively brief time in the Hollywood sun began in as a classic, feisty Howard Hawks' woman in the director's classic Red River (1948), was reportedly a last minute replacement of Linda Darnell in this part after she dropped out of the role, (maybe she didn't buy those clinches either).
Above: Joanne Dru in Drango (1957).

Dru plays her role as someone whose distrust of others runs deep, but she brings a flinty resolution and a degree of intelligence to the role of this young woman caught between opposing sides. Watching her, I am reminded that she might have been an even more interesting actress as she aged, though this was one of her last feature film roles, though she appeared in many television programs after this movie. As she once explained of those period roles in Westerns, "Once you're typed, you're lost," and she could not seem to break out of parts that required her to wear "those long gingham dresses with boned bodices" which she explained "are miserable things to wear."
Above: Julie London plays a non-singing role as an impetuous plantation owner greeting Chandler and John Lupton with less than customary Southern hospitality.

Julie London plays a Southern belle who seems to be involved in a rather twisted relationship with Ronald Howard's proto-Klu Klux Klanner, though the kinks in his corrosive personality eventually alienate her. As usual, London looks very fetching, but doesn't seem completely credible as a fair flower of the South, especially with the false eyelashes and the 20th century diction. Julie London's haughty character shelters and apparently finances the activities of Howard's rebel band, though eventually her attention is distracted by the young captain who accompanies Drango. The town, while still seething with resentment and ill will, begins to assist the Union officers in their efforts to restore some services in the Kenesaw Pass, particularly after Walter Sande, playing the town doctor, joins forces with Chandler's character and helps to stem the tide of diseases, from malnutrition to typhoid that is afflicting the town's denizens.

The reasons for the Union Major's reluctance to impose order with force, when it is revealed that he had passed through Kensaw earlier, leading some of Sherman's rampaging forces engaged in total war against the people, brings the simmering tensions between those who bring martial law and the townspeople to a boil. Overwhelmed with ferocious remorse, which Drango can barely articulate, the major nears the breaking point.  The rather inadequate script does not help Chandler to expiate his anguished character's sins, leading to a fairly clumsy scene with his aide-de-camp that made me smile. I suppose the bottled emotions of both men might have been illustrated by this, but when clueless Capt. Jeff Banning (John Lupton), at a loss to comfort his superior with just a touch of PTSD, hems and haws but finally expresses the opinion to Drango that he definitely seems to be a man who needs a day off. (!)
Ronald Howard in Drango (1957).

The denouement of the film occurs when an increasingly desperate Ronald Howard, in a last ditch effort to assert power over the people, is confronted by a magisterial but muted Donald Crisp (in one of his last roles) as the patriarch finally restores some sanity to the community with a cleansing act of violent atonement, bringing the narrative to a rather rushed close as he strikes down his son. His character's lurid activities as he manipulates the mercurial townsfolk is credible when he launches into a lurid recitation of the injustices heaped upon them, though Chad Allen's private motivations for his behavior, other than a conjecture that he has been driven insane by war are never explained--though Howard makes an engaging villain, reminiscent of an early fascist exploiting the misery around him. . Ronald Howard was, an actor who may be best remembered today as Leslie's son and is one of the actors who played Sherlock Holmes with considerable success on television in the '50s in a British-based series. Howard acted on both sides of the Atlantic for four decades, appearing in notable films such as The Queen of Spades (1949), The Browning Version (1950) and I Accuse! (1958). He   eventually wrote an honest but affectionate biography of his father in 1984,entitled My Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard, (St. Martin's Press) which up to now, is the only full biography that this interesting actor has received.

As Clay Allen, Howard's descent into megalomania and his ultimate demise in Drango (1957) is dramatically staged in one of the most effective scenes in the film, though the breaking of the spell that results hardly inspires confidence in the ability of the people to begin making rational choices in their lives in the future.

Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of the storyline is the way that the townspeople shift from wild-eyed fanaticism that leads them to lynching, beatings, and betrayals to contrite, peace-seeking human beings. The experiences and inner life of too few characters are developed to make them believable--perhaps due to a tight shooting schedule and a severely limited budget. 

There is also one outstanding hole at the center of this story that undercuts much of the realism about the aftermath of violence that Drango tries to address in what Hal Bartlett once described as a "semi-documentary, semi-fictionalized account"--there is not one African-American in the cast nor is slavery really discussed for more than a moment. Apparently, the newly freed slaves became invisible or had the wisdom to get out of this burg once they saw the writing on the wall. I like to think that the freedmen and women were not about to take any more guff from the likes of Chad Allen (Ronald Howard) and his minions.
Above: Chubby Johnson

Bartlett, who was a Yale educated documentarian who blended fictional elements into his personally crafted movies. He made notable, well-intentioned films about racial prejudice and outsiders in American culture following a stint in Naval Intelligence during WWII, such as Navajo (1952), one of the first non-fiction movies about Native Americans, and Unchained (1955) about life in a California prison. In addition to these movies, Bartlett was also responsible for the epic that inspired the satirical Airplane! movies, which was a spoof of the producer's aviation cliché-fest, Zero Hour! (1957). The sincere if under-nourished Drango avoided being as unintentionally comical as the latter, but the presence of the ubiquitous Chubby Johnson might have derailed the film's drama if he had appeared in more than a handful of scenes. Johnson, without whom I suspect no movie requiring a character described as "grizzled,"  "codger," or "old galoot,"  could be filmed in the 1950s, plays a ne'er do well, seemingly waiting around to take part in any mob scenes. You know that when Chubby is on the scene, this town will not be on anyone's list of prime real estate--though this reprobate's matter-of-fact callousness adds considerable color to his scenes.

For Jeff Chandler, an appealing actor despite languishing in some highly entertaining but cheesy Universal-International films (Flame of Araby, Female on the Beach, Sign of the Pagan, East of Sumatra, among other doozies), may have looked at Drango as a chance to have more control over his career. The star was also the producer of this odd little film, through his own Earlmar Productions, in tandem with the director-screenwriter Hal Bartlett. The virile leading man,whose growling baritone, gruff tenderness, chiseled features and prematurely silver hair made him a popular actor, able to partner strong leading ladies such as Joan Crawford, Jane Russell and Kim Novak convincingly. Ultimately, he may have done his best work on film near the beginning of his Hollywood stardom. When he portrayed the Chiricahua Apache chief, the honorable, noble and doomed Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950), the excellent Delmer Daves film starring James Stewart, it marked a post-war shift in depictions of Native Americans as human beings on film. Chandler, who would die prematurely after an operation at only 45, had been a radio actor and some success when he had played the dense Mr. Boynton in Our Miss Brooks, though he was disappointed to learn that he was "too good looking" to play the part on television. On screen he was often relegated to uncredited bits and tough guy parts prior to winning the role of Cochise, which garnered him an Academy Award nomination for his well done work in Broken Arrow. The long shadow of that iconic figure, a resonant character that he played again in The Battle of Apache Pass (1952), may have proved to be a bit of a burden for him. Interestingly, during a publicity tour to promote Drango, the star commented to reporters that the role had "no trace of Cochise. May he rest in peace."
Perhaps Chandler's experiences in rather poorly made films made him determined to become a producer. When asked by columnist Earl Wilson in 1957 to assess his own talent as an actor, the star replied,"Talent! You've got to make the right kind of deals. Because if you make a lot of money, you're a good actor--no matter how much talent you got. That's the way Hollywood judges you." Unfortunately, even though this film received some decent notices when it was released, a few critics pointed out that Drango tried to do the impossible by encapsulating the slippery topic of the Civil War's aftermath with an inadequate script, even though in the '50s, America was only beginning to grapple with that conflict's ripple effects as the Civil Rights movement arose to compel the nation to confront past legacies.

Drango (1957), which has been broadcast on the Encore Western Channel and was part of TCM's examination of the Civil War in April, does not appear to be available on DVD or VHS, though an internet search may yield some DVD-r versions of the movie.


Parsons, Louella, Drango Delayed--Awaits Joanne Dru, The Milwaukee Sentinel, July 17, 1956.
Powers, Dorothy, New Touch Here, The Spokesman-Review, Feb. 6, 1957.
Wilson, Earl, Big Jeff Chandler Exposed, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Mar. 7, 1957.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I missed this movie when it played on TCM recently. I hope to catch it some other time, now armed with your excellent review. I like the comparison of the setting akin to a devastated post-War Germany: "...but there is a bleakness that hangs over the film that seemed to me to have an echo of the grey-spirited films that sifted through the ashes of Germany after World War II for story material..."

So many intriguing and intelligent observations here. I really enjoy your writing.

Jeff Chandler is one of those actors who always seems like he should have been in better material, that he was just on the brink of something that never came. I confess, due to his appearances the "Our Miss Brooks" radio show (he had a terrific radio voice and even sang a few times), whenever he opens his mouth on screen I think of Mr. Boynton.

I've been following TCM's Civil War offerings, but I think this period, war and post-war, has never really been adequately (or at least satisfyingly) addressed by classic films. Maybe it's just too complex and still too political to address except in little bits at a time. The thought that a 150-year old war can still be too political, like some bit of radioactive material that has not reached its half-life yet, seems absurd. Except when you consider some sectarian conflicts around the world that are hundreds of years old.

Caftan Woman said...

You make "Drango" sound like an interesting and frustrating viewing experience. Another one for that list.

Chandler appears to have been a realistic and smart man as well as an appealing actor.

Moira Finnie said...

I think that what makes DRANGO such a frustrating film to watch is the potentially rich premise it presents but never fully develops--perhaps because of directorial or screenplay inadequacies. The Reconstruction period has rarely received a more potentially intriguing treatment, though the complete absence of Black characters was just bizarre. As we know, films from Birth of a Nation to GWTW to Tennessee Johnson have mythologized the realities of a people who had been spiritually destroyed by their loss of the war and impoverished but this movie had a chance to look at the situation more realistically. Too bad it couldn't have provided Chandler with a better vehicle out of genre movies--though I must admit I smile when I see some of them!

Thanks to both of you for commenting.


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