Custer’s Last Stand in all but name
Peckinpah, we know, was not the easiest person to work with. After the splendid Ride the High Country in 1962, a picture he largely wrote and casted as well as directed, he had difficulty in getting other big-screen projects. His cantankerousness and propensity for going vastly over-budget and over-schedule didn’t help, nor his fondness for the bottle while on set. In fact there was nothing till Major Dundee released in 1965, four months before The Glory Guys – and Major Dundee would be a very expensive critical and commercial flop (though later ‘rehabilitated’ by critics and fans). Peckinpah had been fired from The Cincinnati Kid in early ’65 and the producers and studio were nervous, so he was replaced on The Glory Guys by one of the producers, Arnold Laven, pictured below, who, with fellow Army Air Force war photographers Jules V Levy and Arthur Gardner, set up Levy-Gardner-Laven to produce movies in peacetime. The company made a specialty of TV Westerns, Laven directing many of The Rifleman episodes (some written by Peckinpah). As far as feature-film Westerns went, though, Laven had directed Geronimo (the weak Chuck Connors one) in 1962 but that’s all. The Glory Guys would suffer greatly from lukewarm direction.
It’s a Custer’s last stand picture, in all but name. Andrew Duggan was cast as the Custerish General McCabe. His officers blame him for the loss of Captain Harris at the attack on the Apaches at Wishbone Creek – for this, read Major Elliott at the massacre of Cheyenne on the Washita. Then we see ‘Custer’ disobeying orders from a Sheridan-like commanding general (Paul Birch) not to engage the Sioux before rendezvous-ing with another expedition, so desperate was he to prevent the ‘hostiles’ escaping, and ultra-rashly engaging the huge force against advice, with the inevitable result of Army corpses, including his own, strewn on the hillside. This reading of Little Bighorn allows for no pro-Custer sentiment. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
It is clear that Laven & Co were also going for a John Ford cavalry-Western vibe, complete with officer’s ball, comic-relief drunken trooper (James Caan) and so on. But they failed in that endeavor. It’s true that very late Ford, e.g. Cheyenne Autumn, was overlong and meandering, with no clear directorial hand on the tiller, but Ford in his prime would never have allowed this slow, lumbering, elephantine picture to go on so long and with so little action until the final battle scene. Nor would he have countenanced such unsubtle interplay between the characters or put up with such stodgy acting.
The movie also went for the cliché of tough sergeant turning raw recruits into soldiers. We’ve seen it a hundred times and in this respect The Glory Guys (as the title might suggest) is just a generic war movie.
It was a big-budget affair, in Panavision and Color De Luxe, shot with a host of extras in Durango, Mexico locations and photographed by James Wong Howe, no less. It was no cheap B-picture, that’s for sure. There are some classic Howe shots in silhouette. He was a real artist, a master of light and shadow. His capturing of the large-scale battle scenes was also superbly done. Visually, the picture is indeed occasionally the equal of Ford’s work.
The cast, however, was uninspired. Topping the billing was Tom Tryon as the noble captain battling against stupid senior officers – a standard Western trope, and Laven had nothing to add to Ford’s magisterial treatment of this theme. Tryon, Disney’s Texas John Slaughter from TV, had also featured in Three Violent People, a Charlton Heston/Anne Baxter Western of 1956. He had been Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal in 1963, which was much ballyhooed, but that turned out to be a surprise flop. Tryon turned to writing but still acted a bit. He would star in the 1967 TV remake of Winchester ’73, for example. You could hardly call him a big star of the feature Western.
Second billing went to Harve Presnell as the chief of scouts and Tryon’s rival for the hand of the fair Senta Berger. Mr Presnell had very 1960s coiffure in this movie. In fact his hair looks very like that of the present tenant of the White House, though perhaps less orange. The Howard Keel-esque Presnell was a baritone who had made it big in The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Debbie Reynolds the year before but there were precious few musicals around then and he tried his hand at a ‘straight’ Western. To be brutally frank (and when is your Jeff anything less?) neither Mr Tryon nor Mr Presnell was especially charismatic.
Ms Berger, who had moved from her native Austria to Hollywood in 1962 and was Teresa in Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, is the point of the love-triangle in The Glory Guys. She soon returned to Europe. As far as Western movies were concerned, that was all she wrote. Berger would be back with Peckinpah in the 70s, though, in Cross of Iron. I must say that in The Glory Guys she plays a free and intelligent woman capable of empathy towards both her suitors, even if she clearly prefers one of them. It’s a strong character, and our sympathies for her are heightened when she is mistreated by the sneering and mean wife of the general (Jeanne Cooper).
Slim Pickens was there, as the tough sergeant who really cares deep down, and doing his Slim thing. He was never less than entertaining. But really he and Duggan were the only ‘star’ Western names.
Michael Anderson Jr has a part as the green young recruit who falls in love. He had been the naïve kid in The Sundowners back in 1960 and just the month before the release of The Glory Guys he had been the young Bud Elder in John Wayne’s The Sons of Katie Elder. He was also in Major Dundee. Anderson specialized in ‘green kid’ parts. In fact, though, he is rather too wide-eyed and ‘innocent’ in The Glory Guys, really overdoing it.
James Caan milks his comic-relief part for all it’s worth with his ‘Irish’ accent. It was his first feature Western. He would co-star with Wayne in El Dorado two years later and lead in some minor Westerns in the 70s but I’m not sure he was entirely suited to the genre.
There are obligatory scenes such as a semi-comic saloon brawl. Nothing new or special here.
There’s a Major Dundee-ish scene by the river that makes you wonder how much input Peckinpah in fact had. You can’t help thinking that Major Dundee was The Glory Guys the way Sam wanted it. The two movies paralleled each other in so many ways. Interestingly, three actors were on both sets: Anderson, Berger and Pickens.
There’s a very improbable bit where Tryon’s captain arranges for his troop to ride out without weapons and be attacked by fake Indians. I don’t know what was gained by this tomfoolery.
The music by Riz Ortolani is bold and martial – if you want to be polite. Strident and blaring might be other adjectives to employ. And by the ninety-third time you’ve heard it you are heartily sick of it. It is rendered as a cheesy ballad over the titles.
The fort (‘Fort Doniphan’) is good: instead of the usual toy fort with wooden palisade that Hollywood loved it is a more realistic ‘open’ one, like Fort Laramie or Fort Apache.