Tuesday, April 28, 2015


"Destry Rides Again" director George Marshall's lightweight, hilarious, comedy "Advance to the Rear" (*** OUT OF ****) takes place during the American Civil War, but it exploits the conflict more for humor than history. The critical issues of slavery and state's rights are never dealt with in the Samuel A. Peeples and William Bowers' tongue-in-cheek screenplay based on William Chamberlain's novel "Company of Cowards." Furthermore, nobody talks about why they joined up to fight the Civil War. Like most Civil War movies that occur on the frontier, Union and Confederates are fighting each other over a shipment of gold from western mines that both sides desperately want to replenish their coffers. Basically, the story follows the misadventures of a bumbling West Point Academy graduate and his company of misfits that ironically wind up saving the day. Think of "Advance to the Rear" as a predecessor for "F-Troop," and you can put it into greater perspective for film and television in the 1960s.  Peeples and Bowers do a commendable job of foreshadowing action and furnishing the leading men with interesting dialogue. Too many critics have dismissed this hilarity as hokum.  One conversation between Melvyn Douglas's stuffed shirt superior and Glenn Ford's common sense subordinate officer establishes the absurdity of war. Composer Randy Spark's provides a first-rate soundtrack bristling with jaunty music that reinforces the film's farcical qualities. The New Christy Minstrels do a splendid job of warbling the title tune "Company of Cowards," and you want to get up and dance a jig to it.  The cast is stocked with big names, not only Glenn Ford and Melvyn Douglas but also familiar faces galore such as Alan Hale, Jr, Jim Backus, Whit Bissell, Michael Pate, and James Griffith. The production values for this MGM release are reasonably polished, despite the decision to make Oscar winning Technicolor lenser Milton  Krasner shoot this widescreen laffer in black & white. Krasner's elegant pictorial compositions are a treat for the eye.

Glenn Ford maintains a straight face throughout this nonsense as Captain Jared Heath who is later demoted to lieutenant owing to an unfortunate circumstance over which he had no control but for which is culpable. Life is serene in the spring of 1862 for career officer
Colonel Claude Brackenby (Melvyn Douglas of "Ninotchka") who has his troops fire a barrage from his thirty cannon at the Confederates. The Southerners retaliate with thirty rounds from their artillery. This stalemate of sorts concludes abruptly when the overzealous Heath, Sergeant Beauregard Davis, and a couple of other men abduct three Confederate
soldiers and bring them back to their camp for interrogation. Colonel Brackenby is livid with indignation. "Who told you to go out after any prisoners," Brackenby demands. "Take them back." Brackenby constantly reminds Heath that he graduated from West Point. "And how
many times have I warned you about showing any initiative?" Heath is surprised at Brackenby's rebuke. "We've got a nice, quiet, well-regulated sector here," Brackenby explains. "Every morning at six o'clock, the Rebs fire thirty rounds of ammunition at us. Then at six thirty, we fire thirty rounds at them. Their generals are happy and it keeps our generals happy, and nobody much gets hurt. But now you have to go out and capture prisoners and upset the whole status quo. They're not going to like that. It's going to make them mad. Real mad." A confused Heath replies, "If you'll forgive me, Colonel, I thought the
purpose of this war was to have both sides mad at each other." The Confederates launch an attack on Brackenby's men. Heath has to contend with some pretty hopeless soldiers like Private Owen Selous (Andrew Prime of "The Devil's Brigade") who suffers from a perpetual case of hiccups, and Corporal Silas Geary (Jessie Pearson of "Bye, Bye, Birdie") who explains that something about him drives horses crazy. Heath orders Geary back to the rear to serve as Brackenby's courier. Later, after Geary receives orders from Brackenby, the corporal rides off, and Brackenby's horse carries the colonel off as it follows Geary. Everybody is dumbfounded by Brackenby's questionable tactics, and they believe that they must retreat and follow the example of their commanding officer.  The gimmick with the horses that cannot resist Geary is simple but effective in precipitating comedy.  Peeples, who penned an episode of virtually every western television show in the 1950s and 1960s, and Bowers--best known for Burt Kennedy's "Support Your Local Sheriff," trot out this amusing gimmick later on again toward the end.

Predictably, the Union High Command isn't happy with this turn of events. Brackenby finds himself and his regiment the subject of a court-martial. "I damn well intend to get to the bottom of his miserable fiasco and determine what or who is responsible for an entire
regiment turning tail and running before the first shot had even been fired," vows General Willoughby (Jim Backus of "Rebel Without a Cause") as he convenes a board of inquiry. "That damned horse ran away with me," Brackenby defends himself. Not even Corporal Geary can convince the fatuous Willoughby that his peculiar relationship with horses triggered the retreat. "Now, my first warm and generous impulse was to have the whole bunch of them taken out and shot at dawn," Willoughby proclaims to his staff, "but President Lincoln has a phobia about mass executions." One of Willoughby's officers suggests they send Brackenby's men somewhere where the newspapers cannot contact them. Ultimately, they send them so far west that they hope they will never be heard from again. Another officer describes this as "a dirty trick on the Indians." Willoughby recites General Sherman's quote about "War is Hell." Brackenby takes command of Company Q and heads west by river boat to relieve a detachment of the 11th Cavalry. Company Q contains the worst misfits in the Union Army. These include a kleptomaniac, an arsonist, and a compulsive fist fighter. The same time that they are embarking on their journey, they are joined by prostitutes who are being run out of town by a crowd of wives. One of the women is a Confederate spy, Martha Lou Williams (Stella Stevens of "The Poseidon Adventure"), dispatched to keep track of Brackenby's men because the Confederate High Command suspect that this handpicked force of specialists has something to do with guarding a long awaited shipment of gold. They also send in their own renegade officer, Hugo Zattig (James Griffith of "The First Texan") to steal the gold, but they aren't entirely certain of his loyalty.  As one officer points out, Zattig "combines the worse features of Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson."  The use of barrel spars to ski into the Confederate camp is imaginative. Griffith makes a sinister villain. This Civil War western is rather funny, and Marshall makes sure that nobody behaves as if they were in a comedy.

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