A young man hides out in the hills of West Virginia to evade the draft during the American Civil War. [ No Drums, No Bugles credits: Dir: Clyde Ware/ Martin Sheen/ 85 min/ Drama/ Anti-Draft, Anti-War]
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This story of one man’s self-concealment from the law is a sympathetic portrayal of a draft-evader and a strong antiwar statement as well. It doesn’t do much to explain what’s wrong with the draft—the use of coercion, forcing the few to bear the burden of defense for the many, etc.—but it does cast an understanding light on those caught between the horror of war and the stigma and criminal repercussions of draft evasion.
Whatever the film’s virtues, however, it is inescapably boring. The focus is almost exclusively on the isolated young draft-evader at the center of this story, who has no friends and therefore no opportunities for dialogue. Most of the time is passed just dramatizing the difficulties of his survival.
In particular, he must exist only on what he can find in the woods—bird eggs, nuts, wild corn, etc.—and he can’t risk getting help of any kind from anyone as he faces the death penalty if caught. That makes for a very lonely as well as difficult existence.
The only significant talking that goes on in No Drums, No Bugles, other than a few soliloquies by the draft-evader, is the occasional overheard conversation from passersby. It’s in these conversations that we learn the progress of the war, hear arguments over draft evasion, and get sensitized to the hopes and regrets of those involved.
Finally the war ends. But even then, this draft-evader isn’t really free. He has spent so much time alone in the woods, and he’s so unsure how the war’s survivors will react to someone who sat on the sidelines, that he hesitates to rejoin the world. He is very much like a ghost among the living. And so it ends, somewhat like an episode of The Twilight Zone.
No Drums, No Bugles is a strong antiwar, antidraft statement. And it’s probably one of the best hour-and-a-half films of a nearly silent man trying to survive in the woods ever made. But, good intentions aside, there are better ways to spend your time. Fans of Martin Sheen, who is pretty much the only actor in this film, may be more forgiving. This is one of Sheen’s very first films.