President Grant orders Indian fighter MacKay to negotiate peace with the Modocs of northern California and southern Oregon. On the way he must escort Nancy Meek to the home of her aunt and uncle. After Modoc renegade Captain Jack’s group engages in ambush and other atrocities, MacKay eventually ends up tracking Captain Jack down and fighting him one-on-one to apprehend him.
One of Alan Ladd’s better post Paramount films was Drum Beat, based on a little known incident from the Indian wars.
For the first time an American general was killed during the wars against the Indian tribes. The little known Modoc war was another of those lesser known conflicts as action against the Sioux on the Great Plains and the Apache in the Arizona desert got far more attention.
The Modocs were moved from a reservation in northern California to one in Oregon to share with the Klamath, a tribe that had a long feuding history with the Modoc. That was the immediate cause of the war. It was kept going by one of the Modoc’s more charismatic leaders, a chief named Captain Jack.
On April 11, 1873, General E.R.S. Canby among other peace commissioners who were sitting in council with Captain Jack and the other chiefs were suddenly shot and killed, in fact Captain Jack personally did shoot General Canby. Charles Bronson in his very first film with that name having dropped his real birth last name of Buckinsky plays Captain Jack. Warner Anderson plays the feckless and luckless Canby.
The horror of that incident aroused some bad public opinion against the Modocs, not to dissimilar against to what was aroused against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor and Islamist extremists after the World Trade Center attack albeit on a much smaller scale. It certainly shifted priorities for a while in the War Department from the Sioux and the Apache.
Alan Ladd plays a real frontier figure named Johnny MacKay who as the film has him was a civilian scout employed by the army to find Captain Jack. His role in real life was not at the center stage of the film, but he did play a part in the Modoc Wars. And he was not among the surviving peace commissioners he wasn’t at the meeting when the assassinations happened.
For all its inaccuracies Drum Beat is the only film I know to deal with this incident that shocked a nation during The Gilded Age.