The American Civil War has just begun, and many young men from all over the states have been travelling to fight for their cause, whichever side that may be on. One such group have set out from the far west to join up with the Confederate Army, though in truth they only have a loose grasp of what they are supposed to be fighting for, and indeed they have never even seen a slave before, never mind owned one. But they are ready to go into battle no matter that they are not sure what they’re endorsing, as the call up has made it sound like the right thing to do for their half of the country, and they believe with their horse wrangling skills they will be able to make a valuable contribution...
Around the time Journey to Shiloh was made, America was mired in a different conflict, though one which may have been in a different part of the world but nevertheless had divided the nation as to its worth and validity. The conflict in Vietnam influenced a host of cultural media, from books to songs to television drama to, of course, films, and this example placed itself on the side of the sceptics, if not entirely setting out its stall as an anti-war in East Asia tract. It had been based on the novel by Heck Allen, which told the tale of a bunch of young males, mostly teenagers, who optimistically set out for the heat of battle because they believed it was their patriotic duty, only to be out of their depth very quickly.
The cast playing the boys here were noticeably rather older, though Jan-Michael Vincent still had his youthful looks, and James Caan's performance was not assisted by the production's insistence that he wear a longish brown wig to cover his natural curls, but the point was they were all sporting collar length barnets so as to make the link in the target audience's mind between the contemporary times it was made and the past times it was set; the boys are even called "longhairs!" as an insult, in case any hippies were in any doubt. Also among them was Michael Sarrazin whose character appeared to be present to meet a tearjerking fate, though you could say that about pretty much all of them, war being hell and all.
But no matter the ages of the actors, including Harrison Ford in one of his earliest roles and not getting much to say or do, frankly, we could at least perceive this was the younger generation sent to become cannon fodder in a war they didn't understand, because if they did they would be against it, the potential for violent death not much of an incentive once you twig that's what could very well be in store. Therefore we are offered scenes where they meet a family of slaves for the first time and are bemused, as you may be when they seem perfectly content with their lot, which is then tempered when they encounter a runaway who they try to help, then are persuaded otherwise by one of the locals; only when they see the slave later, hanging dead from a tree, does their conscience get pricked.
There was a sense of moving through the source material chapter by chapter here, so there wasn't much of a narrative flow, with diversions where the most boisterous of their number, J.C. Sutton (Paul Petersen) breaks away in a fit of pique (and knocking out Caan's Buck Burnett for the first of many times, bad habit that), or Buck finding love with saloon girl Brenda Scott to add a touch of poignancy for a girl he left behind sort of way. But for the most part, with television director William Hale at the helm, it looked like a TV episode that tried to tackle the pressing issues of the day, and in that regard came across as rather patronising, as if teaching the audience about the realities of war just as it was treating the innocent (or ignorant) group of young cowboys. Not helping were cost-cutting exercises such as obvious sets and stock footage of battle blatantly lifted from an older source which made it look cheaper than it possibly was, but it was interesting at least to see the stars of the seventies making a name for themselves. Music by David Gates, including an unintentionally funny breakdown of what happened to the gang.
[Simply Media's DVD of this title has a disclaimer at the start that the materials may not be in the best shape, and they're right as the 2.35:1 frame is presented pan and scan, making it look even more like a TV show. No extras.]