U.S. cavalryman Captain Demas Harrod (Tom Tryon) leads an inexperienced unit of ragtag misfits out west to take on Native American 'hostiles.' At the cavalry outpost Harrod is delighted to be reunited with his lover, beautiful widow Lou Woddard (Senta Berger). Yet dismayed to learn she has another man in her life: rugged frontier scout Sol Rogers (Harve Presnell). Worse yet the unit fall under the command of General Frederick McCabe (Andrew Duggan), a self-aggrandizing blowhard who has already blundered his way through one military disaster and seems set to drag Harrod's men into another.
Based on the novel 'The Dice of God' by Hoffman Birney and inspired by General George Armstrong Custer's last stand at The Battle of Little Bighorn, The Glory Guys was adapted for the screen by groundbreaking western auteur Sam Peckinpah. In fact Peckinpah was originally set to direct. However in the wake of his ambitious studio disaster Major Dundee (1965), released the same year, co-producer Arnold Laven took the reins himself. Laven might be best known for his likable sci-fi monster movie The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) but was also a dab hand at westerns: e.g. Geronimo (1962) with Chuck Connors and Sam Whiskey (1969) with Burt Reynolds. His production company: Levy-Gardner-Laven, co-founded with Jules V. Levy and Arthur Gardner, developed numerous films from the Fifties through to the early Eighties and Laven had an equally long career directing episodes of popular TV shows from Gunsmoke and The Rockford Files to The A-Team and The Greatest American Hero. Nevertheless replacing a visionary like Peckinpah with a journeyman did a disservice to the material. Intended as a scathing account of Little Bighorn the location, characters and events were all changed by the producers, against Peckinpah's wishes, who wanted to focus on the love triangle instead.
Thematically The Glory Guys has much in common with Major Dundee although it is also Peckinpah's own take on a John Ford style cavalry movie along the lines of Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). As in Ford's films the wide-ranging plot partially encompasses a ragtag band of misfits and riff-raff, covering a broad spectrum of stock American immigrant types, who in the heat of battle merge into a cohesive fighting unit able to weather the hostile terrain. Thus serving as an allegory for the American communal experience as a whole. However, Peckinpah leavens this with his trademark cynicism. The vainglorious McCabe views his troops as expendable pawns in the pursuit of glory. Meanwhile the weary aftermath of battle leaves no room for triumphalism. At the same time though Saul's statement ("Drink deep, ride hard... don't look over the horizon") encapsulates the fatalistic yet still strangely romantic outlook that characterized Peckinpah's later work. Indeed the great director would revisit the theme of arrogant officer seeking glory at the expense of his men in his seminal World War Two movie Cross of Iron (1977).
Essaying an assortment of hapless grunts, some shouldering their own mini subplots, are an array of soon-to-be big names, many of whom became reoccurring Peckinpah players. You have a young James Caan doing a broad 'Oirish' accent as Pvt. Dugan, a lovable rascal whose antics earn him an enemy in a nasty lieutenant; future M*A*S*H star Wayne Rogers; Michael Anderson Jr as callow Pvt. Hale (who snags his own sweet romantic subplot falling for a girl (Laurel Goodwin) that nurses him back to health); and Slim Pickens, who essays what under Ford would have been the stock Victor McLaglen role, as stalwart Sgt. Gregory. Alas, this bunch prove far more compelling than our bickering leads. Which is not a fault of the typically textured characterization in Peckinpah's script. Harrod and Rogers are clearly written as upright, admirable heroes. Yet neither comes across as especially likable due to the regrettably colourless performances from Tom Tryon and actor-singer Harve Presnell. Both men went on to prove their worth elsewhere. In Tryon's case it happened via a career switch to novelist with horror bestseller The Other (1972) which he adapted for the big screen. Followed by Fedora (1978) and spooky television mini-series The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978). Presnell rounded off the Sixties with an outstanding musical turn in Paint Your Wagon (1969) - where he snagged the best song - then thirty years later enjoyed an unexpected comeback with substantial roles in films like Fargo (1996) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). In The Glory Guys however both actors seem out of their depth in roles crying out for the charisma of say Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. Consequently the macho brawling that occupies a great deal of screen-time proves a tedious time-waster and the love story just does not catch fire. On the flip side lovely Senta Berger elevates a role that teeters between conventional and pleasingly progressive. Oddly much like the film's view of the cavalry hovers somewhere uncertainly between celebratory and cynical.
Elsewhere legendary D.P. James Wong Howe captures some stunning vistas straight out of an old west painting with classy, evocative cinematography. The battle scenes, while lacking the explicit bloodshed of Peckinpah's later breakthrough work, still convey a visceral intensity. Indeed in some scenes the film's sporadically vibrant editing so clearly reflects Peckinpah's own films one would not be surprised to learn the cuts were specified in his script. While The Glory Guys may have reached screens a little too early it still comes across in part as a potent allegory for the Vietnam War. That said, while the audience are meant to empathize with the cavalrymen, watching the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing.