The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Journey to Shiloh

Coming of age stories are universal. Every one at some point grows up so you can appreciate what someone else went through.  Well, in a perfect world I guess.  The late 1960s were a time of coming of age for the whole country as the United States went through an incredible transformation, and the movies reflected that. Cynicism and loss of faith in the government certainly didn't help, and nowhere was that problem more evident than in the US's involvement in Vietnam.  Movies took some not so subtle jabs at that involvement, thinly veiled stories that were obviously criticisms of Vietnam but based in a different time or place in history.

That was basically the last thing on my mind as I started watching 1968's Journey to Shiloh, a Civil War western that plays like a TV movie but features a very interesting cast (more on that later). At the outbreak of the war in 1861, hundreds of thousands of troops went off to fight a war they all figured would be over after one good battle, beliefs of a glorious, noble fight in front of them. They quickly found out that there's nothing glorious or noble about war, and this low-budget western/war picture reflects that. Young men go off to war, wanting to do what they believe and know is right only to be dealt a startling wake-up call. For some though, it comes to late.

It's 1862 as young Buck Burnett (James Caan) and Miller Nalls (Michael Sarrazin) lead a small company of teenagers toward the fighting in the East, hoping to join up with General Hood's Texas forces fighting with Robert E. Lee's army in Virginia. These seven riders -- they call themselves the Concho County Comanches -- from west Texas want to join the fight, not to fight for slaves or state rights but because they think it's the right thing to do.  But as they leave Texas and head into Louisiana, they quickly find that nothing is quite as it was made out to be.  Anyone and everyone is looking to get a dollar or two out of the fighting, and they're eventually shanghaied into joining a Confederate infantry unit.  The group of friends is separated and put into different units as the Confederate army prepares for the upcoming fight at Shiloh (read about the Battle of Shiloh).

Through a cornball opening via folk song, we get to know the "Comanches" as they call themselves, and I was immediately encouraged, thinking I'd stumbled across a quasi-Magnificent Seven remake.  Caan is the star of the movie regardless of how big the cast is, and other than a ridiculous-looking wig Buck is required to wear, does an admirable job as the quiet, loyal, confident and capable leader.  Sarrazin is underused (as is most of the cast) as Miller, Buck's best friend and right hand man.  Rounding out the group is Todo McClean (Don Stroud), the strong, silent type, J.C. Sutton (Paul Petersen, earlier of The Donna Reed Show), the fast draw and best gunman, Eubie Bell (Michael Burns), the jokester, Little Bit Lucket (Jan-Michael Vincent), the youngster, and Willie Bill (Harrison Ford). In one of his first movies, Ford has about 8 lines of dialogue unfortunately and is mostly a background filler.  Regardless of the quality of the movie, it's cool to see up and coming stars like Caan, Sarrazin, Vincent and Ford in some earlier roles.

Even among all the poorly delivered lines and stilted action, the movie has its appeal.  There just aren't many Civil War movies out there, and fewer that show the war behind the lines, away from the fighting. 'Shiloh' if nothing else gives a picture of the towns and villages and  travel along the roads as the war rages between North and South. The story is a tad episodic at times -- making me think it was a TV movie, even though it isn't -- as the seven riders head east, meeting people along the way and seeing that the war isn't something as simple as North vs. South. They see the war for what it really is, and start to question why there were so geared up for fighting complete strangers from the North with whom they have no prior argument.  It's not a heavy-handed attempt to show this, but more and more I kept thinking about America's involvement in Vietnam and the sentiment at the time (as the war was turning to the negative) as it got worse and worse.  Corny at times, the movie does aspire to say something so even though it might not get completely there, it's a solid attempt.

Unfortunately though, the movie is ultimately handicapped by anything resembling a respectable budget.  California is a poor stand-in for Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee no matter how you cut it. The episodic story feels rushed, and I'm betting some scenes were out of order in the storyline.  The portrayal of the battle of Shiloh is so laughably cheap I wished they would have almost ignored the whole thing.  Stock footage from previous Civil War movies -- especially 1965's Shenandoah -- stands in for actual battles, but whole shots are repeated two and three times in the matter of seconds.  Then we get the cut-ins of Caan and Sarrazin with a few extras, but the attempt is awful to try and sync it together.  On the positive, the soundtrack (other than the theme song at beginning and end) from composer David Gates is good, keeping the action flowing along.  And even with the negatives, the message is there. Stop reading if you don't want to know the ending.

SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS  As the movie neared its conclusion (handled rather clumsily), I was hoping director William Hale stuck to his guns and went through an appropriately downer of an ending. Caan is the only one of the group to survive, but if Hale wanted to deliver a great cynical, timely conclusion, he has Caan get killed too, and there was the chance for it.  The ending still works, just not as good as it could have been.  As for the general rushed feeling of things, two characters are killed off-screen, one gets sick and dies in the span of a day or so, and another dies conveniently when Caan arrives.  The emotional impact could have been much greater if these deaths were handled a little better. END OF SPOILERS

Mentioning the rest of the cast, Noah Beery Jr is his usual hammy self as Sgt. Mercer Barnes, the Confederate soldier who takes the youngsters under his wing, John Doucette as Confederate general Braxton Bragg, and Brenda Scott as Gabrielle, a dance hall girl Buck falls for in Vicksburg.  The movie is hard to find, odd considering what the cast would go on to do, but it's a good movie, if a flawed one. It's on Starz Play currently and is available to watch on Netflix's Instant Watch if you're curious.

Journey to Shiloh <---opening song/intro (1968): ** 1/2 /****

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