Not Rated | 2h | Adventure, Romance, War | 1959
For as many Western films as celebrated director John Ford made, it’s interesting that he produced only one wholly dedicated to the Civil War. (He did touch on the Civil War in 1962’s “How the West Was Won.”) “The Horse Soldiers” (1959) was his only film about the conflict, and he couldn’t have chosen a more compelling narrative to base the film on.
“The Horse Soldiers” was based on a 1956 novel with the same name by Harold Sinclair and adapted by screenwriters John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin. It was based on the real-life exploits of Union Army cavalry officer Col. Benjamin Grierson, who ironically hated horses because he was kicked in the head by one as a child.
Ford fills Grierson’s boots with the fictional character of Col. John Marlowe (John Wayne), a railroad construction worker in civilian life who is a dutiful cavalry soldier in his military one.
Ford’s films never fail to impress during their grand openings, and this film is no different. Here, as the beginning credits roll, we see beautiful shots of cavalrymen riding their horses along a long ridgeline, their dark silhouettes set against vast blue skies dotted by puffy white clouds.
As we are introduced to Marlowe and the various men in his unit, it is made clear that he is well-liked and commands their respect. Soon, however, Marlowe is tasked by Gen. William T. Sherman (Richard H. Cutting) to carry out a daring mission: to take his entire cavalry brigade from a captured military depot in Tennessee and travel hundreds of miles south behind enemy lines with the goal of destroying a railroad depot that is a crucial supply line for the Confederate Army.
Some of the men grumble about its being more or less a suicide mission but ultimately fall in line—except for one: Maj. Henry Kendall (William Holden), an Army doctor who has been assigned to Marlowe’s brigade by the higher-ups. Marlowe (for reasons later revealed) immediately resents Kendall’s presence in his unit and does little to hide that fact. Meanwhile, Kendall understandably feels set upon by the unprovoked hostility and begins to see Marlowe as a brute with little compassion.
After leaving the military depot, some of the brigade are bushwhacked and wounded by a Confederate patrol. Knowing they’ve been spotted and that Confederate forces will zero in on their location, Marlowe pulls a ruse and orders a third of the brigade to turn back: He wants it to appear that the entire unit is leaving.
That’s when another thorn in his side emerges. Col. Phil Secord (Willis Bouchey), a politician in civilian life, frequently second-guesses Marlowe’s orders.
The unit takes some respite close to a small cabin that happens to be inhabited by a large black family. As Kendall is treating the wounded men, a soldier informs him that the black family is in dire need of medical aid. Kendall obliges without Marlowe’s consent and ends up delivering a baby.
In a dramatic scene, Marlowe enters the cabin just after the baby is delivered. He’s upset that the doctor isn’t treating the men, but Kendall poetically justifies his actions: “I know. One’s dead. One’s gone—one’s born. Amazing process isn’t it? The point is I delivered it.”
A little later, the brigade comes across a large Southern house owned by Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers). Marlowe intends to rest his men and bivouac overnight in the forest surrounding the house, but Hannah insists that he and some of his command staff come in and enjoy a dinner that evening. Kendall soon discovers that there may be some ulterior motives involved. Her genteel “Southern belle” affectations are a little too excessive.
The film’s second and third acts fill out this initial setup well. We see Ford’s penchant and gift for delivering exciting, large-scale battles, and the conflicts between Union and Confederate forces is a nice change of pace from the usual cowboy fare. Some subtle romantic tones come to the fore by the film’s end.
The film is quite a roller coaster ride, as the further the brigade goes south, facing greater and greater danger, the more the characters’ true colors reveal themselves. Marlowe is forced to juggle with not only the threat of being detected by Confederate forces but also his unit’s own internal problems, such as an obstinate captive and a rebellious doctor.
The acting is fantastic, as can be expected with such a stellar cast.
By the end of the film, we clearly see one of its primary messages: The United States can only be strong if its factions are united for a greater good—no matter how seemingly disparate those constituents are. “The Horse Soldiers,” then, is a solid John Ford entry and a subtle, thought-provoking film.
‘The Horse Soldiers’
Director: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers
Running Time: 2 hours
Release Date: June 12, 1959
Rated: 4 stars out of 5