‘Death Drums Along the River’ | Sunday Observer
Retro reviews: Cinema of yesteryear

‘Death Drums Along the River’

22 November, 2020

Based on the 1911 novel Sanders of the River written by Edgar Wallace, ‘Death Drums Along the River’ is a 1963 British-German international co-production directed by Lawrence Huntington.

It is a retro classic of cinema that brings to life a facet of the white imperial outlook through British cinema that saw Africa as a wild frontier in need of the white man’s structure of law and order.

The central figure of the story is the heroic Police Commissioner Sanders, played by British screen legend Michael Todd. The leading lady is Dr. Inge Jung, played by German actress Marianne Koch.

And together with a host of other characters the narrative unravels intrigue, exoticness and the dangers in Western Africa as Sanders discovers a diamond smuggling ring which had been operated by a German medical officer Dr. Franz Weiss, played by Albert Lieven, under the cover of being a benign healthcare worker in a remote area in the country, based at a hospital built and operated by the ageing Dr. Schneider.

The series of events are set in motion when a couple of longshoremen accidentally drop a large sack which rips open and reveals its contents to be peanuts.

However, when the longshoremen find a small pouch hidden among the peanuts it is quickly grabbed by an unknown African man who disappears from the scene.

Seeing the incident two local policemen patrolling the wharf give chase to the man on the run and finally in a section of the town that seems somewhat an abandoned slum, one of the policemen is stabbed by the fleeing man in his desperation to escape the arm of the law.


The murder weapon is a dagger with an intricately designed handle, and Sanders who takes a close look at it has a hunch that he may be able to find out more about its origins.

Visiting a burly looking European tradesman at his shop in town, Sanders inquires whether the dagger was sold from his shop.

The tradesman whose name is Pearson is suspected by Sanders to be a man involved in all kinds of illegal activities. Pearson flatly denies any knowledge about the dagger but is warned by Sanders that he will get to the bottom of the crime.

Sanders and his deputy, the somewhat naive and simple Hamilton, soon play host to one Dr. Inge Jung, a noticeably beautiful lady doctor who arrives in the country to provide her services at the hospital run by Dr. Schneider, located upriver in what is less hospitable territory.

Coincidentally on the same flight as Dr. Jung, a journalist by the name of Jim Hunter arrives claiming that he is going to Dr. Schneider’s hospital to do a story about it.

Interestingly enough Hunter is known to Pearson through previous association. Sanders feels suspicious about Pearson’s interests in all this which is centred on Dr. Schneider’s charity hospital.


Offering to take Dr. Jung up to the hospital located upriver Sanders finds that Pearson himself is there with Hunter and his suspicions keep growing.

Sanders tells Dr. Schneider of the murder of one of his men and shows the murder weapon and asks if by any chance the doctor may have seen it before.

Interestingly enough Dr. Schneider reveals that he has in fact seen one of his former plantation workers with that exact dagger on him being carried on his waist. He tells Sanders that the man has left his employ. From this point on the plot thickens and gradually Sanders, in the course of trying to track down the murderer in the jungles soon finds the man only to see him shot by an unknown gunman hiding in the jungle so that the man will not talk, and thus Sanders soon finds himself uncovering a diamond smuggling operation that had been carried out by Dr. Weiss right under the nose of Dr. Schneider whom Weiss was trying to slowly kill by altering his medication.

The gradual discoveries by Sanders sees an attempt being made on his own life at the wharf by an assailant who follows him from the doorstep of Pearson’s shop in town.

Jim Hunter who claimed to be a reporter is found dead near the hospital’s compound inside a concealed pit in the forest which was used as part of the illegal diamond mining that was going on in the area.

Diamond smuggling

And Hunter himself is uncovered to be a diamond dealer who was kicked out of Sierra Leone and had come on the pretence of being a reporter when he had in fact sniffed the opportunity for diamond smuggling from Dr. Schneider’s lands. Pearson is also killed by Weiss as the former turns his back on Weiss and retracts his offer to smuggle Weiss beyond the border for half the diamonds Weiss has on him due to the fact that Sanders arrives to arrest Weiss on learning that he had been trying to kill Dr. Schneider since the details are revealed by the hospital’s head nurse Marlene after she flees the hospital establishment.

The finale shows an action packed scene of ‘cops chasing criminals’, where Sanders rescues Dr. Jung from the clutches of Weiss who attempts to flee the hospital compound on a boat to cross the border with Dr. Jung as his hostage.

Weiss meets his end at the hands of the dangerous African wilderness. Falling victim to a crocodile in a patch of swamp as he tries to flee across the border, he thus evades being brought to justice for all the crimes he committed.

Marlene, who was fearing for her life, leaves the country safely earning the gratitude of Sanders for her assistance to crack the case, and Dr. Jung stays on in the country to continue her work, as a close companionship is also blossoming between her and Sanders.