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Perhaps the last great Cavalry picture, John Ford's 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 rarity. John Wayne is on board and gives a fine performance reciting lines and doing slick work on horseback. He was probably there to stockpile money for his super-production The Alamo of the next year.
The film is a fairly accurate account of Grierson's Raid , a Union incursion deep into Confederate territory in April of 1863. Ex- railroad builder and Yankee Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) leads an irregular troop Southward, 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 for security reasons must be brought along. The soldiers in blue succeed in their 'dirty' raid on a railhead town, but the prospects for an escape back to Union lines looks grim. Several rebel units are closing in -- including a company of children from a confederate military academy.
Overselling the reputation of John Ford (you must see the hype in the trailer to believe it), The Horse Soldiers frankly shows the great director 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 scattered amid a lot of very predictable clichés. Wayne and Holden are each in fine form assaying their 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 actually works fairly decently, against expectations. But Ford's general liking for broad writing, acting, and effects eventually lessens the overall interest. Critics were accustomed to savaging Ford for having his characters engage in drunken slapstick and Irish humor whenever things become 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 '40s.
The Searchers had its share of bumpkin comedy, but it all seemed part of that classic's 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.
Other scenes evoke Ford at his best. The march of the child-cadets carries a strong emotional charge, as does the raid on Newton Station where Wayne is almost ambushed by a rebel counter-attack. The rebel wounded 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 imminent 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, at least. The rebel ambushers don't have it so good. Ford stages the Newton Station battle brilliantly until the shooting starts, at which point we see a trainload of confederates illogically advancing into a death trap. Most appear to be shot down, but a post-gunsmoke look at the street reveals only a few bodies. 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, to sell a Civil War film in the big Southern markets, a neutral stance is the wisest course of action. That and the fact that the war's politics were so complicated, that there's little hope of engaging any of its issues with any depth or insight. The script does its best to bring in the slavery issue, even though it consistently refers to any black slaves encountered as 'contraband'. But the script still condescends to the heroine's companion-slave, Lukey. Her death provides a moment of sentiment, but her cute name is reminiscent of the Indian 'Look' of The Searchers, who fulfilled a more complicated purpose in that story but was still mainly the butt of a joke.
Although they openly carry the flag, Wayne's men are basically on what Wayne himself would have called a 'terror' mission: in reality, it's hard to believe that the troop's interaction with the South could have been so civilized. Wayne dines with Southern Belles, and helps an old sheriff deal with a couple of bushwhacking crackers, etc., as if he were the Salvation Army. Yet we're told that the raid managed to avoid most rebel troops, and did not commit acts of destruction or injury against the civilians it encountered. 1
The Horse Soldiers is obviously an expensive production. Ford's long lines of horses march not through an Indian reservation bought cheap but across what must have been some hard-to-negotiate prime real estate back East. For once a Civil War battlefield looks believably green and wispy clean. Too clean, sometimes: the raiders negotiate the most sanitary-looking swamp in movie history. A sense of cost cutting is seen in the costuming and 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 much of his action in very predictable ways, too often resorting to riders charging through with lines of horses. 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 impact sneak through. One great sight is the dramatic image of the Newton Station commander signaling to the incoming train while under guard, with the train reflected on the window glass. And John Wayne really comes through in the horsemanship department: several complex master shots end with the experienced Wayne executing some graceful maneuver while in the saddle. His wave of his cavalry hat to the "victorious" cadets is simply beautiful.
The star-power of Ford's two male leads and an interesting Constance Towers make the melodramatics work well enough to keep our interest up until a climactic but under-developed skirmish at a wooden bridge. Ms. Towers hits just the right attitudes and pitch of outrage that the story needs, and is the only thing to keeps our interest amid the dull professional conflict between the two bigger stars. 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.
MGM's new Blu-ray of The Horse Soldiers is a stunning transfer that greatly improves the viewing experience for this film. The older flat-letterboxed DVD simply wasn't mastered very well. I remember the MGM restoration people back in 1994 complaining that they couldn't get a decent-looking transfer of the film -- but they must have been using some flawed element. The widescreen 1080p image is consistent for color and always attractive. The audio is also much beefier, as one would expect with an HD encoding. Get set to hear all of John Ford's favorite cavalry songs ... more than once!
MGM's new line of vintage (and budget priced) Blu-rays just start playing when popped into the machine. English subitles are included on this title, but that's about it -- if you let the show roll out, it will simply play again. So don't fall asleep watching late at night or you'll be hearing marching songs when the cock crows.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Horse Soldiers Blu-ray rates:
1. Savant's favorite movie about the Civil War (and terrorism) is Hugo Fregonese's 1954 The Raid, a gem about a defiant Confederate 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.
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T'was Ever Thus.