This sweet-tempered send-up of Civil War heroics from Destry Rides Again director George Marshall has a company of useless Union misfits sent out of the reach of battle but still managing to capture a rebel spy and save a vast payout in gold.
The company commander, Colonel Claude Brackenby (Melvyn Douglas), is a West Pointer who has never known combat duty and whose idea of the proper procedure of war is to fire just enough volleys not to irritate the enemy into making more than a token return.
Captain Jared Heath (Glenn Ford), willing but completely frustrated by his wooden-headed superior, heads a company which includes such unique specimens as a Tennessean turned Yankee who refuses to shoot at what might be a relative; a corporal with an irresistible attraction for horses, including one who leads him in the wrong direction; plus such privates as the one who hiccups at the sound of gunfire, a bone-crunching muscleman who has an aversion to being touched, a kleptomaniac, and a soldier who (accidentally) blows up his own officers’ quarters.
When this collective blemish on the record of General Willoughby (Jim Backus) prove themselves more of a liability than an asset in defeating the South, they are sent into Indian territory to man an isolated outpost. But as events turn out, it is their fate to save a gold shipment that the Confederates plan to intercept.
In this mission, they are aided by information secured by beautiful southern spy Martha Lou (Stella Stevens), who, on the journey west by riverboat in the company of a group of ladies of the evening, ingratiates herself with both Colonel Brackenby and Captain Heath. There is a scene in which the Colonel steals into Martha Lou’s cabin hoping for an assignation which is worth the price of admission alone.
The situations are fairly obvious, certainly, but Ford injects an amused authority into the action, so the result is a gentle satire that saddles up the usual clichés but for different reasons.
Sequences you are unlikely to forget include one in which these foot soldiers attempt to learn the art of mounting and riding horses; another in which the entire company – having literally lost their pants – ski down a dry hillside on barrel staves clad in underwear to take the renegade camp by surprise; and the uproarious climax in which they fight a wing-ding battle with homemade rockets, slingshots and a catapult hurling crockery.
Captain Jared Heath
Colonel Claude Brackenby