Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Perhaps the last great Cavalry picture, The Horse Soldiers has a fine cast, but only an
okay story. As a Civil War picture it's fairly successful, and a good
Civil War movie is a rariry.
Ex railroad man, Yankee Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) leads an irregular troop on a
mission into the Confederacy, feuding every step of the way with his company doctor Major Kendall
(William Holden). Also confusing issues is Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers), a Southern Belle who learns of their
plans and must be brought along for security reasons. They succeed in their 'dirty' raid on a
railhead town, but escape back to Union lines looks grim, with several rebel armies closing in from all
sides - including a company of children from a confederate military academy.
Oversold on the reputation of John Ford (you have to see the hype in the trailer to believe it),
The Horse Soldiers frankly shows Ford near the end of his career and slipping in all departments. Meant to be a rousing
action yarn with deeper insights into battle, a score of great scenes are lost amid a lot of very
predictable cliches. Wayne and Holden are each in fine form assaying
their very well-defined characters, yet there isn't much chemistry between them, or with Constance
Towers, who does a fine job herself, with a difficult role. The 'woman comes along on the man's
mission' plot works very well here, against expectations. But Ford's general liking for broad
writing, acting, and effects eventually mitigates against interest. Critics used to savage
Ford for having his characters engage in drunk slapstick and Irish humor whenever things got dull.
He tries to keep it to a minimum here, with just a sergeant character sneaking drinks, etc., but
it still plays like a throwback to the '30s.
The Searchers had its share of bumpkin comedy, but it all seemed part
of a general pattern of stylization. The Horse Soldiers is much more realistic, so endless shots of lines
of horses riding in silhouette on the crests of hills, etc., while on a stealth mission in enemy
territory seem pretty forced, especially when the soundtrack overflows with their hearty singing voices,
as if the soldiers were chosen for their choir experience.
There are some isolated scenes of power, that evoke Ford at his best. Both the raid on Newton
Station, where Wayne is almost ambushed by a rebel counterattack, and the march of the child-cadets,
have strong emotional charges. In Newton Station the rebel layabouts and deserters suddenly
form up as fierce resisters; and when long grey lines of 12-year-old boys attack Wayne's corps
of seasoned fighters, for a few moments there's a real feeling of disaster. But no matter how
much Ford purports to undercut the glory of war, The Horse Soldiers is firmly in awe of all things
military and the glory of both the Union and Confederate sides. The soldier kids come to no harm, and
the ambushers are dispatched fairly cleanly (which doesn't make much sense - the rebels immediately
run into a Union gauntlet). Honor and chivalry are stressed, with Wayne and the one-armed rebel
officer practically complimenting one another on the slaughter of the day.
Savant is no expert, but it doesn't take a genius to realize that the problem with many a Civil War film
is that to sell the movie in the big Southern markets, it's generally assumed that a neutral stance
is the best. That and the fact that the war itself was politically so complicated, that there's
little hope of even touching on any of its issues without embarassing one's self. The script does
its best to bring in the slavery issue (the blacks encountered are referred to as 'contraband') but
still condescends to the heroine's companion-slave, Lukey. Lukey dies, providing a moment of
sentiment, but her cute name is reminiscent of the Indian 'Look' in The Searchers,
who fulfilled a more complicated purpose in that story but was still mainly the butt of jokes.
Although they do carry the flag, Wayne's men are basically on what Wayne himself would have called
a 'terrorist' mission: in reality, the troop's interaction with the South could not been
near so peaceful and quaint. Wayne dines with Southern Belles, and helps an old sheriff deal
with a couple of bushwacking crackers, etc., as if he were the Salvation Army. A very token
resistance is shown in the movie, whereas it's obvious that Wayne's troop would pretty much have to
cut a path of violence and barn-burning to keep the enemy civilians off balance. It's called
terror, and it did half of General Sherman's job for him. Like Savant says, he's no expert, but
I simply don't buy that Wayne and a whole troop could 'sneak' anywhere through this territory for more
than a couple of days, tops. 1
The Horse Soldiers is obviously an expensive production, with Ford's long lines of horses not
marching through empty deserts, but instead what must have been some hard-to-negotiate prime real estate back East.
For once a Civil War battlefield looks believeably green and wispy clean. Too clean,
sometimes: they cross the most sanitary-looking swamp in movie history. But there is a sense
of cost-cutting in the costuming and the sets. Newton Station looks far too artificial, like a bunch
of hastily-assembled scenery flats. The scenes of burning railroad equipment are so limited in
scope that the 1:85 cutoff is needed to focus on the subject of some
shots. Ford films his action very predictably, with only hoof-height angles of horses gallumping
past to break up the stasis. Even with moving cameras,
set-pieces like the charge at Newton Station are staged rather flatly. Only once and awhile does
a shot with a real charge sneak through, as with the dramatic image of the Newton Station commander signalling
to the incoming train while under guard, with the train reflected on the window glass.
The star-power in Ford's two male leads and an interesting Constance Towers make the melodramatics
work well enough to keep interest up to the final, under-developed skirmish at a wooden bridge.
John Ford fans are going to have no problems with this show, but it's not recommended as the title to
woo new converts to the Fordian fold. 2
MGM's DVD of The Horse Soldiers is not much of an improvement on the older laserdisc. I don't
know if this is the same master or not, but it simply doesn't look very good: it's grainy, the
colors are inconsistent, and there's a lot of unnecessary film damage. Fans hoping for a disc that
improves on ordinary television broadcasts are going to be disappointed, especially when Paramount
has just released better looking Ford films from the same time period. Their
Ford film, Donovan's Reef,
looks so gorgeous on DVD, it's a pleasure to watch even if you don't like it! The majority of
MGM titles are simply great-looking, and I need to stress that if you haven't seen The Horse Soldiers,
you may be entertained enough not to notice the lower image quality.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Horse Soldiers rates:
Packaging: Alpha pak
Reviewed: June 20, 2001
1. Savant's favorite movie about the Civil War (and terrorism) is
Fregonese's The Raid, a gem about a defiant rebel punitive action against a small Vermont
town, mounted from Canada by escaped prisoners. It pulls some punches at the end, but the
feeling of hatred and bigotry within the jingoistic war 'spirit' is beautifully expressed.
2. A revision from Nick Lappos, 4/25/04: Glenn, I read
several of your reviews and think you do a great job. One of my
favorite films is the flawed but still enjoyable The Horse Soldiers
which I think you handled perfectly.
A comment on your review: You said, "It's called terror, and it did half of General Sherman's job
for him. Like Savant says, he's no expert, but I simply don't buy that
Wayne and a whole troop could 'sneak' anywhere through this territory
for more than a couple of days, tops."
Your description of the raid as a terror exercise is actually profound.
It was studied, I am told, by the Air Force officers who planned the
strategic bombing campaign in WWII, as well. Your description is quite
original, and correct, I think. You are off in thinking the Hollywood
touch determined the low casualty count and the courtliness of the
The actual raid, known as Grierson's Raid, was almost exactly as the
film describes. The entire 2000 man Union force suffered only 36 total
casualties! Speed and deception saved them at every turn. Showing
Ford-like honor among combatants, several time the Union soldiers helped
dowse the flames of their carnage when they threatened civilian houses
and stores! See
this web link for a one-paged
account, and the non-fiction book that Ford used, The Horse Soldiers
for more info.
Thanks for the good work, keep it up! Nick Lappos Stratford CT
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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