Any civil war is full of stories like this. Maybe not this ludicrous and over the top, to be sure, but still. Stories of people making friends with locals. Or already being friends with locals. Marriages between sides. The scene at the beginning, where the Yankees trade coffee for Confederate tobacco, is known to have happened all up and down the front. There is no language divide here. Many of the soldiers had been friends with people on the other side before the war started; many of them were related to people on the other side. We are still coming at this one from a strange angle, and there’s a lot going on.
Willie Prentiss (Kurt Russell) is a young soldier for the Confederacy. He befriends Corporal Henry Jenkins (James MacArthur), a Union soldier stationed literally across the creek from him. They’re in the middle of trading when a lieutenant comes near. One of Willie’s comrades starts shooting and Henry. He and Willie struggle for the gun, and the lieutenant gets shot. Willie runs away, with the help of Henry; he is eventually captured by Confederate forces . . . led by Lieutenant John Singleton Mosby (Jack Ging), who it turns out survived being shot. He does not have Willie hanged because he believes Willie is the one person who can sneak his forces in for the raid he’s attempting.
The raid is successful, and Willie manages to capture Henry. He takes Henry back to his family farm, where his mother (Jeanne Cooper) and Cousin Oralee (Peggy Lipton in her feature debut) hold him captive. Henry falls in love with Oralee, and he routinely sneaks across enemy lines to court her. She resists at first but eventually falls in love as well. He manages to offer her his mother’s wedding ring, and she agrees to marry him. However, both his superior officer, Captain Blazer (Michael Pate), and Mosby hear about the wedding. Oralee is allegedly marrying a blockade runner, having lied to her family about Henry. Blazer hears that Mosby’s whole troop will be there and he can capture them; Mosby finds out that Blazer is coming and decides to ambush them instead.
So that’s a lot. We’re not really interested in the specifics of the war. Why is anybody on either side in particular? Because. What are the political aspects of the war? Who even knows? The movie sure doesn’t. Presumably this is because, in 1967, Disney wasn’t going to vocally support slavery in a movie. I mean, which does really make you wonder why they chose this specific story, but there it is. There are no black people, so you get to avoid the subject of slavery altogether.
They keep referring to Willie as one of Mosby’s “men.” Russell was sixteen at the time. Now, I won’t dispute that there were sixteen-year-olds in the Confederate Army. I won’t even dispute that there were sixteen-year-olds in the Confederate Army as early in the war as the whole thing is set. (Shockingly, the history doesn’t correspond well with Mosby’s actual career; he is one of a handful of historical figures in the film, and at the time Willie allegedly joined his unit, he was a scout and, from what I can tell, didn’t have a command.) However, in theory, a boy Willie’s age who wasn’t a drummer boy or similar was supposed to have been sent home. Even toward the end of the war, you were supposed to have turned seventeen before you enlisted.
I suppose they keep Willie an obvious boy—and indeed cast Russell—to make him seem more innocent and less inclined to think of anything other than “we need to protect our home from the Yankees.” It also makes you see Henry as being a supportive older brother type, though I’d point out that MacArthur was himself thirty at the time, and there were plenty of other people who could’ve been cast in the role and kept that dynamic. It was Russell’s second film for Disney, and goodness knows he was capable of the role. I doubt it was intended as a subtle slam at the Confederacy, that they relied on an actual legal child, but you could see it that way if you chose.
Shockingly, this is not available on Disney+. I’ve got a lot of feelings about what isn’t available, including most of Russell’s films for Disney, but I’m okay with this one being hard to find. I mean, sure, there’s the “it’s not very good” factor, but there are plenty of not-very-good Disney movies I wish were on the service. In this case, it’s definitely that I think of it as “the Disney Confederacy movie.” Famously, one of the last things Walt wrote before he died was Russell’s name, because he was personally interested in Russell’s career. This movie was after Walt’s death, but it was close enough to it that he might have actually been partly responsible for the whole thing. So there’s definitely that, I guess.