“A boy with the courage of a man saves an army from defeat!”
—From a publicity tagline for Walt Disney’s Johnny Shiloh
Johnny Shiloh, “the youngest, bravest Yankee drummer boy,” drummed his way into the hearts of millions of fans on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color television show 50 years ago. Fondly remembered by Disney fans of the long-running anthology series, Johnny Shiloh was loosely based on the true story of Johnny Clem, the youngest non-commissioned officer in U.S. Army history. Just as the life of Abraham Lincoln still inspires the world, here’s a look back at how Disney shared the exciting adventures of a young boy who ran off to be in Mr. Lincoln’s army.
Born in 1851, Johnny Clem was only nine years old when he attempted to join the Union Army shortly after the start of the Civil War. Rebuffed by an infantry unit in his native Ohio, he attempted to join the 22nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry but was again turned away. Determined to join the fight to preserve the Union, Clem tagged along with the 22nd Michigan until he was finally permitted to serve as both mascot and drummer boy.
Bravery on the battlefield led to newspaper stories and Clem’s immortalization in a popular Civil War song, “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh,” even though his legendary heroics are actually said to have occurred during the war’s Battle of Chickamauga. Wounded twice in combat, Clem was even captured—and released—by Confederate forces. Along the way, he changed his middle name from Joseph to Lincoln in honor of the nation’s commander in chief. Clem’s military service continued after the war’s end, and he eventually was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. The last Civil War veteran to remain on active duty when he retired, Clem was promoted to major general by a special act of Congress in 1916. He died in 1937 and was buried in Arlington Cemetery.
The story of a boy anxious to serve his country no doubt inspired Walt Disney, who himself had been eager to enlist in the U.S. Army toward the end of World War I, even though he was considered too young to fight. In 1959, James A. Rhodes and Dean Jauchius published Johnny Shiloh: A Novel of the Civil War, a popular book optioned by Disney for its dramatic storytelling potential as the nation observed the Civil War’s centennial in the early 1960s. Disney had earlier ventured into another true-life Civil War story with 1956′s The Great Locomotive Chase, featuring Davy Crockett star Fess Parker.
Playwright and screenwriter Ronald Alexander adapted the Johnny Shiloh story for Walt, who then enlisted one of his most experienced young actors, Kevin Corcoran, to portray the title character. From his leading roles in such studio hits as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, Toby Tyler, Pollyanna, and Swiss Family Robinson, Kevin’s popularity made him a natural for the part.
He brought an earnest, sincere quality that demonstrated just how his acting range had matured since his earlier roles as a Disney rascal or as “Moochie.” The script required Kevin to portray an eagerness to fight that gives way to soberness as Johnny Shiloh witnesses the realities of combat. In later years, the actor would remember the role as one of his favorite Disney productions.
Tapped to direct was James Neilson, who directed other Disney productions including 1962′s Moon Pilot and Bon Voyage!, a family comedy co-starring Kevin. Moon Pilot had also featured a blustery Brian Keith, who was cast in Johnny Shiloh as Sgt. Gabe Trotter, an officer tasked to train his young tag-along volunteer/recruit. The role well suited Brian Keith, known to Disney audiences for playing easily irritated or cranky characters, including the father to Hayley Mills (times two) in 1961′s smash hit, The Parent Trap. Production publicity materials for Johnny Shiloh noted that Brian’s great-grandfather served four years as a combat medic during the Civil War, while Brian himself spent four years as a Marine during World War II.
Determined to film the Civil War story with detail and authenticity, Walt approved production on a film with a cast that swelled to an impressive 80 speaking roles, with hundreds more extras needed for battlefield scenes. Also cast in a starring role as a young Confederate soldier was Eddie Hodges, a popular child actor of the era. He is famous for his appearances on Broadway in The Music Man, singing “High Hopes” with Frank Sinatra in Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head, and playing the title character in MGM’s 1960 version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
“After a fairly busy career as a child actor, I had some concern about whether or not I could continue to work in my teen years and wondered where my career would go next, if anywhere,” Eddie remembers in an interview with D23. “The part was a young Confederate soldier who befriended the [Union] drummer boy in the midst of battle and would be a small role. I was excited to be able to work for Walt Disney. I was 14 and was a big fan of Disney movies, especially the adventure movies that brought history to life.”
Eddie was called to meet with Walt at the studio lot in Burbank. “That was a thrill! I was afraid that I would be nervous and look foolish—I was a goofy kid!—but Mr. Disney seemed relaxed, so I relaxed,” Eddie remembers. “We talked about the part of Billy, and I told Mr. Disney that I was from Mississippi and thought I could play Billy in an authentic way. He said he had seen my acting and knew I would play the part just fine. He mentioned another role in an upcoming project [Summer Magic] that could use my musical ability a bit more and said that we would be talking about that soon. The meeting could not have lasted more than 15 or 20 minutes, and I was off to wardrobe to be fitted for a Confederate uniform.”
Joining the rest of the cast were two additional former child stars. Cast as Johnny Shiloh’s company commander, G.V. “Skip” Homeier was a former child star on radio, Broadway, and television. Playing a Union lieutenant was Darryl Hickman, another former child star who’d recently appeared on The Americans, a short-lived TV series about two brothers fighting on opposite sides during the Civil War. Portraying General Ulysses Grant was Hayden Rorke, who later found fame in TV’s I Dream of Jeannie. Also making notable appearances were Edward Platt, who’d played the henpecked Ben Tarbell in Disney’s Pollyanna, and child actor Rickie Sorensen, who was busy at the studio recording the voice of Wart for The Sword in the Stone, released later in 1963.
Eddie Hodges fondly recalls his interaction with the others once he arrived on the set, which was designed by Oscar® winner Emile Kuri. “The people were so nice and easy to work with,” he says. “Kevin Corcoran and Brian Keith were personable and very focused professionals. Their calm, easy way of working put me at ease as the Disney ‘new kid on the block.’ The director, James Neilson, kept things focused and moving. There was a lot of talk about making sure everything was authentic. I learned from the wardrobe man about how to wear my uniform, and the prop man told me about my rifle. They were very prepared with the correct knowledge to make it right, because ‘that’s the way Walt wants it.’”
Walt’s quest for authenticity filled studio soundstages with pieces recreating the Civil War era, including the construction of two railroad stations. The studio’s Western Street was reworked to represent 1860s towns. Battlefield scenes were filmed at the studio’s Golden Oak Ranch in the San Fernando Valley with tents dotting hillsides to represent the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. Other parts of the ranch saw the sights and sounds of the Civil War come alive as Federal and Confederate cavalry units battled while cameras rolled. During a filming schedule of 25 days, the effort devoted to a highly talented cast, costumes, battle props, and a stable of horses was massive but would ultimately pay off on-screen for viewers accustomed to Walt’s high standards.
Given that the original Johnny Shiloh story was made legendary in part by a famous song, Walt enlisted songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman to come up with their own take on how Johnny Shiloh became famous. The Shermans delivered the film’s title song, a catchy number that proclaimed:
Johnny Clem was the name of a lad not in his teens when the war ‘tween the states had begun, but the name Johnny won with his drum and his gun will live in history.
Johnny Shiloh, Johnny Shiloh, ran off to be in Mr. Lincoln’s army.
Johnny Shiloh, Johnny Shiloh, the youngest, bravest Yankee drummer boy.
The film’s score marked one of the earliest feature-length Disney endeavors for composer Buddy Baker and proved especially significant to Walt’s creative focus elsewhere at the studio. Baker researched and incorporated authentic Civil War-era songs and music as themes, several of which inspired musical segments that were used the following year for Walt’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln show at the 1964 World’s Fair and later at Disneyland.
Eddie Hodges stills remembers how well everyone got along and enjoyed working on the production. “Mr. Disney visited the set once or twice, but mostly watched and said very little,” he recalls. “He seemed to know everybody by name and they called him “Walt.” He was always pleasant and kind to me and my family the few times he came around where we were working.”
When completed, Johnny Shiloh represented feature-film caliber qualities that surpassed much of what could be seen on television at the time. The film aired in two parts on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, January 20 and 27, 1963. The Shermans’ title song was released as a Disneyland 45 rpm record covered by a studio chorus. Disney’s Buena Vista record label also released another version recorded by Billy Strange, a singer and songwriter famous for his work with the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley. Gold Key also produced a Johnny Shiloh comic book.
The success of the production led to its theatrical release abroad, the standard practice for many of the studio’s most notable TV productions from the era. Johnny Shiloh was popular enough to prompt a return to the Civil War on Disney’s Sunday night anthology series a few years later when the studio featured James MacArthur and a young Kurt Russell in a three-part film, Willie and the Yank, aka Mosby’s Marauders.
Director James Neilson went on to film another well-remembered, multi-episode installment for Disney’s anthology series, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. He also directed several more Disney theatrical films and reunited with Eddie Hodges and the Sherman Brothers later in 1963 for Summer Magic, the popular musical starring Hayley Mills. Eddie also returned to Disney in 1967 for The Happiest Millionaire, his third Disney film featuring songs by the Sherman Brothers.
With his touch for thoughtful portrayals of youth, Disney demonstrated heart at the center of the Johnny Shiloh story. The youngest, bravest soldier in Mr. Lincoln’s army is seen as resilient, determined, valiant, and brave in saving his sergeant’s life; it’s one of many heroic tales still remembered from the War Between the States.
“I really enjoyed watching Johnny Shiloh when it was screened,” Eddie says. “It was a privilege to be associated with that project and to work with such fine professionals.”
By D23: The Official Disney Fan Club’s Jim Hollifield