50 YEARS AGO: HOLLYWOOD TURNS A CIVIL WAR TRAGEDY
INTO A GLENN FORD COMEDY
by Fred Blosser
Jack Schaefer is best remembered now for SHANE, but he also wrote a memorable short novel about the Civil War in the American West. COMPANY OF COWARDS (1957) is a riveting story about tragedy and redemption that begins with a harrowing battle in Grant’s 1864 Virginia Campaign and ends with a clash between troops and Indians on the High Plains. In usual Hollywood fashion, when MGM released a movie version seven years later, Schaefer’s dramatic novel became a comedic Western starring Glenn Ford.
Here’s the story that Schaefer wrote:
On the fourth day of the Battle of the Wilderness, Union Capt. Jared Heath is ordered to lead his exhausted troop of infantry against a larger, entrenched Confederate force. Bleakly calculating that few if any of his men would survive the charge, he refuses to advance. Although Heath is an exceptionally brave and capable officer, three days of continual front-line fighting and losses have pushed him beyond endurance. He submits to a hasty court-martial, expecting and prepared to face a charge of disobeying an order. Too late, he learns that, instead, the charge is cowardice in the face of the enemy.
Found guilty, Heath is bucked and tied in the courtroom. A spiteful commanding officer orders his troops to file past and spit on him. Disowned by his family and despised by the service, he is busted down to Private and assigned to an ambulance detail. He has to walk behind the wagon when it goes out to pick up wounded soldiers on the battlefield -- the driver won’t let him ride.
Only one fellow officer, Major Foster, reviewing his prior record of leadership and bravery in combat, believes that he deserves a second chance. Foster convinces the high command to form a “company” composed of Heath and six other former officers (and one non-com) convicted of desertion and malingering, and wrangles a way to get them back into honorable service.
Bonding under Heath as “Company Q,” the unit is detailed to garrison duty out West, where the war has left the frontier Army short of manpower. Ultimately, the chance to win back their self-respect comes when they’re dispatched into the Texas Panhandle as part of an expedition under Colonel Kit Carson to disperse Kiowa and Comanche raiders near a place called Adobe Walls . . .
It could and should have been source material for a John Ford movie in the late 1950s, with Jeffrey Hunter as Heath and Richard Widmark as Foster. In fact, I wonder if Schaefer himself wrote the novel with one eye on the hope that Ford might film it; Company Q’s topkick, Hugo Zattig, is the spittin’ image of Victor McLaglen’s feisty non-coms in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy. There are plenty of roles for the rest of Ford’s old stock company as well.
For greater box-office appeal, Ford probably would have added a romantic element to Schaefer’s stark narrative, maybe casting Vera Miles or Constance Towers as a sweetheart back home who never lost faith in Jared Heath. At least this change would have been relatively minor in the scheme of things. I don’t know whether Ford was ever aware of the novel; it isn’t mentioned in any of the books about Ford that I’ve read. In real life, when COMPANY OF COWARDS actually made it to the screen in 1964, it bore only glancing resemblance to the novel. Under the title ADVANCE TO THE REAR, the movie retains the names of some of Schaefer’s characters, but turns the somber story into a military comedy like OPERATION MAD BALL and THE WACKIEST SHIP IN THE ARMY.
In this version, amiable Capt. Heath (Glenn Ford) commands a company of misfits (including Jesse Pearson, Andrew Prine, and Alan Hale Jr.) who are brave enough, just not very competent. After a battlefield debacle, the troop and its buffoonish senior officer, Col. Brackenby (Melvyn Douglas), are exiled to the Dakotas to occupy a remote fort. On the way Heath meets a sexy Rebel spy posing as a hooker (Stella Stevens) and foils a plot by a Confederate guerilla (James Griffith) and a Harvard-educated Indian chief (Michael Pate) to incite an uprising.
Ford is charming as Heath, but the Heath of Samuel A. Peeples’ and William Bowers’ screenplay is tailored to the laid-back sort of character that the actor played in POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES and THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. The seething, tightly wired Glenn Ford from THE BIG HEAT, JUBAL, and Budd Boetticher’s THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO would have fit right in with Schaefer’s original novel, but not with the broad comedy of the movie.
TV fans will see similarities to F TROOP and THE WILD WILD WEST, which debuted on the tube the following year. And there’s a GILLIGAN’S ISLAND convergence of the Skipper and Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus plays a Union general) a few months before the S.S. Minnow began its fateful trip.
The New Christy Minstrels’ Randy Sparks composed the soundtrack. One of the tunes, “Today,” was a Top 20 hit for the group in May 1964 as the British Invasion was just gearing up. The film was less successful; Howard Thompson’s review in THE NEW YORK TIMES called it “a warmed-over brew of slapstick and pratfalls.” Still, on its own terms, apart from the question of whether a movie should remain faithful to a novel it’s based on, and in hindsight of even worse movies since, it isn’t a complete failure. It runs occasionally on the TCM channel, and Warners released a print-on-demand DVD edition last year.