The American Civil War is often slotted into the wrong genre. It is not a western. It is a war, with all the inherent wrongheadedness, viciousness and atrocity. We begin with senseless execution and end on a note of humiliating barbarity. Along the way we witness easily the greatest performances in the careers of George Hamilton (The Power, 1968) – a wonder after this how he was ever associated with playboy characters – and Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968).
At the tail end of the war in a Confederate POW camp, the disciplinarian commander orders raw recruits to execute an escapee. When they fail to find to the target Major Wolcott (Glenn Ford), witnessed by appalled missionary fiancée Emily (Inger Stevens), steps in to finish the job. In the wake of this Wolcott sends Emily away under escort.
POW leader Captain Bentley (George Hamilton), fully aware the war might end in days, but determined to escape to Mexico and continue the fight, organises a breakout. Instead of sneaking out quietly, in revenge he turns the Union cannons on his captors. And despite being better informed how close the war is to an end, the dutiful Wolcott sets off in pursuit.
Bentley ambushes Emily’s escort, killing the soldiers and stealing their mounts, but promising Emily that as befits a Southern gentleman he will respect her honor. She’s not so innocent of war, anyway, begging Bentley to kill a fatally wounded Union soldier rather than leaving him to the buzzards or, one assumes, marauding Apaches.
Unfortunately, his comrades don’t share that sentiment and when Emily makes the mistake of unloosing her blouse to wet her neck at a stream it inflames their lust. Equally, unfortunately, Emily doesn’t keep to her part of the deal and in attempting to escape hits Bentley a humiliating blow with his own saber.
While unfamiliar with the territory, Wolcott is a pretty good soldier, taking a shortcut over the mountains to cut off their retreat. “How come he knew what we were gonna do before we done it,” wails a Confederate soldier. “Before you even thought it,” snaps the over-confident Emily.
A few miles from the border, the Confederates hole up in a bordello where Bennett finds a despatch announcing the war is over. Ignoring the fact that for the ordinary soldier you couldn’t find a better place to celebrate peace than in a whorehouse, and determined to continue the war, Bennett conceals the information.
In revenge for losing face in front of his soldiers, he (luckily off camera) rapes the half-stripped and bloodied Emily. In the manner of every savage taking advantage of wartime conditions, Bennett tells her, “You think nothing like this can ever happen to you. But you’re lucky because your humiliation will be over soon. You and your major are going to know I won.”
Rape, as currently in the Ukraine and as in many previous conflicts, used as a weapon.
When Wolcott arrives, it’s obvious what has happened and while holding a lid on his own emotions (a Glenn Ford hallmark), once he has proof the war is over, he refuses to give chase. Brutally, he tells her, “I can see (witness) men die for their country but I can’t see them die for your honor.” It’s Bennett who, oddly, comes to her rescue, opening fire on the Union soldiers, compelling Wolcott, in breach of the rules of war, to cross the border into Mexico in pursuit.
This isn’t a typical Glenn Ford (The Pistolero of Red River/The Last Challenge, 1967) picture where he plays the central character and is scarcely off screen. Here, he disappears for long stretches as the camera focuses on George Hamilton, his squabbling gang and the growing tension between him and Inger Stevens. If you’ve only seen Hamilton in his screen playboy persona, this is a revelation as honor and misguided duty turn into repulsive action.
And this is by far the best performance by Inger Stevens. What she achieved here launched her career, although admittedly as a female lead rather than top-billed star. The emotion her face portrays without the benefit of dialog is quite astonishing. Expecting to be an innocent bystander, unexpectedly thrown into the tumult, physically abused, and then, contrary to her Christian beliefs, she goes from stalwart to victim to, against her Christian principles, showing no sign of turning the other cheek but in full Old Testament mode urging revenge.
The scene when Emily enters a room full of soldiers, attempting to retain some dignity in the face of torn clothes and bloodied face, while acknowledging her humiliation, is stunning. The only scene that comes close to matching its power is at the end, the sequence shot from above, light streaming into a darkened cellar, when, having killed Bennett, Wolcott abandons his potential bride.
Phil Karlson (The Secret Ways, 1961), a stand-in for original director Roger Corman, does an excellent job of focusing on the brutalities of war, not just the rape and violence, but the recruits, as dumb as they come on both sides, who fail to cope with the pressures. You would have to be fast to spot Harrison Ford (billed as Harrison J. Ford) making his screen debut, but Harry Dean Stanton (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) has a bigger role. Halstead Welles (The Hell with Heroes, 1968) wrote the screenplay based on the novel The Southern Blade by Nelson and Shirley Wolford.
A couple of later westerns might have raided this picture for ideas: continuing the fight in Mexico was the focus of The Undefeated (1969); a constantly carping pair who delight in slaughter evidenced in The Wild Bunch (1969); relentless pursuit a constant theme of 1969 westerns as diverse as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, Mackenna’s Gold and Once Upon a Time in the West.
Regard this as a western and you will be disappointed. Take it more seriously as a war picture and it offers far more. I’m probably being a tad generous in giving it four stars but I was knocked out by the performances of Hamilton and Stevens and a number of excellent scenes, the two in particular mentioned above for example, and the dialogue.