Tuesday, September 27, 2016

No Drums, No Bugles (1972)

          Given his lifelong commitment to humane causes, it’s no surprise Martin Sheen agreed to star in this sincere melodrama about a conscientious objector during the Civil War. As a personal and political statement, the film is highly commendable. As an entertainment experience, not so much. The only actor onscreen for most of the 90-minute movie, Sheen spends most of his screen time foraging for food and shelter in the wilderness. Weirdly, the filmmakers elected not to create a narration track, which would have illuminated the protagonist’s inner life and utilized Sheen’s glorious speaking voice. Bereft of this obvious element, No Drums, No Bugles is a slog, though an argument could be made that the minimalistic storytelling suits the narrative, which was extrapolated from lore that has survived through generations in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. Written and directed without Clyde Ware, the movie starts awkwardly, because when we meet him, Ashby Gatrell (Sheen) is already on the run. One gets the vague impression that the opening scene is supposed to represent Asbhy’s first, horrifying experience of combat, with fellow Southerners laid to waste while cruel Northerners pick the bodies clean for loot, but Ware doesn’t sufficiently orient viewers.
          Thereafter, the movie transitions to repetitive scenes of Ashby making a primitive life for himself. He builds a torch to scare a bear out of the cave that Ashby claims for his home, he picks up scraps left behind by hunters, and he often hides by roadsides so he can parse people’s conversations for clues about the status of the war. In what should be the movie’s emotional high point, Ashby sneaks into his own home to visit his sleeping wife and children, not daring to wake them lest they share the dangerous secret of his whereabouts. No Drums, No Bugles is redeemed by its clear thematic focus, and Ware strives for lyricism by using twee folk songs to bridge sequences together. Yet No Drums, No Bugles is ultimately a better idea for a movie than it is an actual movie, because even though Sheen’s performance is infused with honesty and passion, Ware’s storytelling is dull and flat.

No Drums, No Bugles: FUNKY

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