During the British Raj, Captain Carruthers (Roger Livesey) works under cover to track a smuggled shipment of arms on the Northwest frontier of India (the modern day Pakistan-Afghanistan border). He fears a full-scale rebellion is brewing. To forestall this the British governor (Francis L. Sullivan) signs a treaty with the friendly, peace-loving ruler of Tokot, a key kingdom in the region only four days' march from the nearest British fort in the region. The king's son Prince Azim (Sabu Dastagir, billed simply as: 'Sabu') befriends Carruthers and British drummer boy Bill Holder (Desmond Tester) who teaches him how to play the drums. However, Azim's scheming uncle, Prince Ghul (Raymond Massey) assassinates the king and seizes the throne. Two faithful retainers help Azim escape, disguised as a humble street urchin, to British-held Peshawar. Here he is once more saved from assassins, this time by Carruthers' courageous wife (Valerie Hobson). In an attempt to salvage the peace treaty Carruthers leads a detachment of men back to Tokot only to fall into a trap hatched by Prince Ghul, prompting Azim to try and save the day.
Hungarian-born super-producer Alexander Korda made three films more or less celebrating Britain as a colonial power, unofficially known as the Empire trilogy. Of these The Drum was the second, sandwiched between Sanders of the River (1937) and The Four Feathers (1939). It was also the second vehicle Korda concocted for his great discovery Sabu Dastagir, an orphan boy elevated from obscurity in southern India to international stardom via the well-received Elephant Boy (1937). Released just at the cusp of a decade that would see the British empire crumble after the twin blows of World War Two and the Indian Independence movement, the film was received very differently in both countries. In Britain this unabashedly jingoistic ode to empire was warmly welcomed whilst in India riots erupted in Bombay and Madras against what was perceived as propaganda. Divorced from the context of the times, The Drum is an amiable if archaic adventure romp though certainly no match for Korda's subsequent sublime Sabu vehicle The Thief of Baghdad (1940).
Lensed in eye-catching Technicolor by gifted cinematographers Osmond Borradaile (the man responsible for discovering Sabu) and Georges Périnal, the sprawling scenery is stunning but the sub-Rudyard Kipling plot, conceived by famed British author A.E.W. Mason is cornball colonial fantasy. Though the filmmakers cast a few authentic Asian actors who acquit themselves well, Sabu included, the abundance of epithet-spouting English character players in brown-face remains an embarrassing relic of a thankfully bygone age. Or maybe not if Gods of Egypt (2016) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) are anything to go by. Zoltan Korda's brisk direction ensures the action breezes along nicely particularly in the latter half but the drama is stodgy. The plot grinds laboriously, switching back and forth from jaunty scenes of local colour to the mounting anti-colonial conspiracy. Like some of John Ford's cavalry westerns there are a few too many would-be endearing scenes sentimentalizing British soldiers. They sing campfire songs, trade cute quips, perform highland dances and boldly march into battle in picturesque fashion. Even so, while the caricatured villains are problematic, the stiff upper lip Brits are endearingly quaint. The underrated Roger Livesey and Valerie Hobson prove quite engaging as an unflappable, debonair duo.
On the one hand the British do not emerge from this entirely spotless given the top brass come across like mindless robots for ignoring Prince Azim's warning. Yet the general tone and arc is undeniably calculated to stress the greatness of the British Raj. Azim in particular seems in awe of the British army. He is so excited to play soldier he does some pretty reckless even reprehensible things. The film draws Azim as something of an infantile savage leaving it up to Livesey's hero to drum some good old fashioned British boarding school discipline into him. Come the end Azim is a dutiful, Anglicized ally of the empire. Of course what is cute for a mainstream British audience in 1937 feels kitsch at best, downright offensive at worst in the twenty-first century.