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The Horse Soldiers

The Horse Soldiers
MGM Home Entertainment
1959 / Color / 1:85 flat letterbox / 115m.
Starring John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers, Ken Curtis, Willis Bouchey, O.Z. Whitehead, Anna Lee, Jack Pennick
Cinematography William H. Clothier
Art Direction Frank Hotaling
Film Editor Jack Murray
Original Music David Buttolph
Writing credits John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin from a story by Harold Sinclair
Produced and Directed by John Ford

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 'lesser' 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:
Movie: Good
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
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 officers, though.

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


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