An Italian playing a Native American!
Was the role of Marisa a precursor to the future 1960s genre, Spaghetti Western? Drum Beat is a Western written and directed by Delmer Daves in 1954. Inspired by events in American history, it is no less than a typical Hollywood film in which themes of love in times of war and peace blend together. This Warner Bros. production was co-produced with Jaguar Productions (created by actor Alan Ladd) and retraces the conflict between the native Modoc tribe and the American Army in the north of California and south of Oregon between 1872 and 1873. Wishing to avoid an all-out war, president Ulysses S. Grant orders Johnny MacKay to negotiate a peace treaty with the Modocs. Playing Johnny MacKay in the film, Alan Ladd brings scope and wisdom to a character that attracts both respect… and amorous love!
And how does our beautiful Italian fare in all of this?
Aged 21 at the time of the film’s shooting, Marisa Pavan takes on the role of Toby, a Native princess and sister to Scarface Charlie played by Rodolfo Acosta. Her role is based on real-life Toby Winema Riddle, member of the Modoc tribe who acted as interpreter in the peace negotiations. There are, however, key differences between the real-life Toby and the on-screen version played by Marisa. In the film, Toby dies violently on the battlefield, her head crushed by a Modoc who opposes the peace process. This is quite different from Toby’s real fate. In Drum Beat, her character is much more impulsive (and love-smitten!) This is, after all, a Hollywood movie. Here, Marisa is featured in several short scenes, often appearing on horseback, accompanied by her brother in the film.
This is a very nice western to make one reflect on themes of war, peace and the human condition without forcing the viewer to take obvious sides in the conflict. The music, composed by Victor Young, is quite engaging and rhythmic, giving an excellent sense of the film’s historical depth. Marisa seems quite at ease in this role, giving an authentic and sincere performance. Her emotions are perfectly represented on screen. She never overdoes it and we feel close to her character from beginning to end. With her wisdom and her love for Johnny McKay, we can only feel total sadness for her death on screen especially once we discover that McKay actually survives the bitter and very violent war. Ultimately, it is a fine work by Delmer Daves featuring Marisa Pavan alongside Alan Ladd, Audrey Dalton, Charles Bronson and Rodolfo Acosta. Who said Italians can’t play Natives?