Debatably the least of the post-Stagecoach John Ford-John Wayne collaborations - Donovan's Reef may be worse, but it's certainly more entertaining) - The Horse Soldiers (1959) was, surprisingly, director Ford's only feature film set during the Civil War, and was more or less based on the true story of Union Col. Benjamin Grierson's daring raid behind enemy lines to cut railway access to Vicksburg, Mississppi, the Confederate stronghold that refused to fall.
Partly shot on location, the picture has several impressive battle sequences and a fairly engrossing story, but the dramatic conflict between Wayne's Grierson-esque Colonel and William Holden's vaguely pacifist army doctor is trite and unappealing, while Wayne's relationship with Southern Belle Constance Towers is simply not believable.
Still, there are plenty of interesting things going on in The Horse Soldiers and this Blu-ray release is particularly welcome. MGM's DVD version from May 2001 was matted to 1.66:1 but not 16:9 enhanced, making this 50GB, 1080p presentation a considerable upgrade. The lone extra feature is a trailer, but at least it's in high-def, too.
Former railroad builder John Marlowe (Wayne) is now a colonel in the Union Army, charged by Gen. William T. Sherman (a role Wayne would himself play in How the West Was Won in 1962, in the segment of that film directed by John Ford) to destroy the depot at Newton Station and as much rail line as possible along the way, thus effectively cutting off the strategically important Vicksburg.
Marlowe feels saddled by a newly-assigned regimental surgeon, Maj. Henry Kendall (William Holden), whom Marlowe believes will only slow him down. He had intended on leaving his wounded behind, even knowing they'd likely be imprisoned in the notorious Andersonville. (Mild Spoilers) Marlowe hasn't trusted doctors since the death of his wife on the operating table, and his extreme antipathy toward Kendall otherwise isn't really warranted and plays as both strained and artificial, with a lot of "Get off my back!" shouting to no good end.
On Confederate soil, the horse soldiers soon reach the plantation of Miss Hannah Hunter (The Naked Kiss's Constance Towers) who, shocked, exclaims, "Them's Yankees!" She wins over most of Marlowe's staff with her exaggerated southern hospitality; serving fried chicken, she leans toward Wayne in her low-cut dress, coyly asking, "What is your preference? The leg ... or the breast?"
Kendall's not buying it, however, and later he catches Hannah and her slave Lukey (Althea Gibson*) eavesdropping on Marlowe's plans to continue south to Baton Rouge after hitting Newton Station. Unhappily, Marlowe is forced to take Hannah and Lukey with them.
Filmed on location in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana and Natchez, Mississippi - though Gibson's scenes were filmed in Hollywood to spare her the embarrassment of racial segregation - The Horse Soldiers never really gels. The reason often given for this is an accident on the set: Ford reluctantly allowed an aging stuntman/bit player named Fred Kennedy to double for William Holden in a fall. Kennedy broke his neck and died on the way to the hospital. Kennedy's pointless death drove Ford into a deep depression, which by this time meant seriously hitting the sauce.
He ordered his crew back to Hollywood even though there were still 19 more shooting days left. Three weeks later, Ford rushed through the rest of production in the San Fernando Valley northwest of Hollywood, reportedly wrapping the film a single day.**
But even before Kennedy's death there were other problems. Wayne's wife at the time, Pilar, attempted suicide while they were in Louisiana, and yet another contributing fact was that Ford simply hated the script: "You know where we ought to make this picture? Lourdes. It's going to take a miracle to pull it off." He only agreed to make it if some changes were made to the script, including jettisoning its upbeat ending for a more realistic, downbeat one. That rewritten scene is quite effective and better reflects the pain and the sacrifices suffered on both sides during the war, just as Ford had wanted. It's too bad he didn't insist that the whole script reflect this same spirit.
Ford's usual stock company is in the picture, including Ken Curtis, Hank Worden, Carleton Young, Russell Simpson, etc., though unlike Ford's other U.S. Cavalry films there's almost no broad comedy. O.Z. Whitehead has a nice part as Holden's medical assistant; Denver Pyle and Strother Martin have a good scene as wily Confederate deserters; and Willis Bouchey, frequent Perry Mason judge, is effective as a pompous colonel-politician.
Video & Audio
Presented in 1.66:1 format, which appears correct, on Blu-ray The Horse Soldiers is a big step up from the earlier DVD release. The image is slightly grainier than most spherical widescreen color films of the period, but it's still significantly sharper and the colors (original lab work by De Luxe) truer than all previous home video editions. William Clothier's cinematography is attractive; note the beauty of the two-shot of Wayne and Holden at 1:42:22. Ford uses a lot of dissolves, and at every dissolve the movie pops out of and back into clarity. During these dissolves (and other process shots) the image gets significantly softer and dupey-looking, but this is only mildly distracting. The mono DTS-HD Master Audio is more than adequate; Spanish and French mono tracks are available, along with English and French subtitles. My Japanese PlayStation 3 went straight to unlisted Japanese menu and subtitle options. The disc is region "A" encoded.
The only supplement is a trailer, also in high-def, which amusingly notes the release of two - count 'em, two - record album tie-ins in full stereo.
The $3.98 million production (of which Wayne and Holden each received $750,000 and 20% of the profits, superstar wages back then) was a popular success but not a profitable one, grossing $10.2 million in North America alone but earning rentals of about $3.9 million. It's a mixed bag, but for individual scenes and to finally get to see it in high-definition, The Horse Soldiers is definitely worth a look. Recommended.
* Gibson was not an actress but rather a professional athlete, hailed as "the Jackie Robinson of Tennis." She was also a professional golfer.
**This information from Randy Roberts and James S. Olson's recommended John Wayne, American.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.