The Horse Soldiers gets a brand new 4K master as John Ford’s latter era Civil War Western gets a Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber.
I’m hesitant to call it the beginning of the end. But in reading about the death of a stuntman and Ford getting getting up there in age, you can’t help but wonder. The film’s release wasn’t anything to write home about. Throw John Wayne and William Holden in the same film and you’re going to command a high budget before cameras start rolling. Basically, anything that could go wrong during production did. Holden and Ford got into it with each other. Wayne was in prep mode for The Alamo, which no doubt impacted his performance and such on set. That’s not to say that he phones it in because he doesn’t.
John Lee Mahn and Martin Rackin base their screenplay on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name. However, the novel tells a fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid. Name changes aside, they spice it up the events with some romance. Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne), a railroad construction engineer before the Civil War, leads a Union Calvary from LaGrange, Tenn. down into Baton Rouge, LA with a mission to destroy the railroad and supply depot at Newton Station. There’s a major contrast behind Marlowe and the company’s doctor, Major Henry Kendall (William Holden). Kendall may be a soldier but he finds the war to be horrifying. Throw in Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) into the picture and it adds some romance into the equation.
After Hunter and her slave, Lukey (Althea Gibson), eavesdrop on Marlowe’s company, he decides to take them with him. I’m not sure if this was Union protocol at the time but sure, let’s just run with it. In no surprise, Hunter is hostile towards Marlowe. After all, she is is a Southerner. But she reaches a point of respecting him and in Beauty and the Beast fashion, she falls in love with him. Down the line, Marlowe is dealing with some of his officers second-guessing his decisions. One such officer is Col. Phil Secord (Willis Bouchey).
A few fights and skirmishes take place during the second half of the film. Lukey dies during one of the fights. Marlowe and Kendall continue going at each other even as the Confederates are inching closer. Kendall ends up staying behind to aid the injured soldiers. He knows what he’s risking in doing so but he would rather not wait for the Confederate forces to arrive. Marlowe leaves Hunter behind as the Confederates are about an hour behind and is the last of the Calvary to cross the bridge before it explodes.
Grierson’s Raid was essential in the Union taking Vicksburg and occupying boat traffic along the Mississippi River. The Vicksburg campaign wouldn’t be a success without the railroad and supply lines being destroyed. It was an essential diversion that preceded the Battle of Vicksburg. Through it all, Grierson’s Raid caused a headache for Confederate General John C. Pemberton. In real life, Marlowe was inspired by Col. Benjamin Grierson, a music teacher before enlisting in the army. As far as we know, Hunter isn’t based on anyone as she’s just there to give the film a romantic twist. Forced romance, anyone? Kendall is based on Dr. Erastus Dean Yule, who did stay behind and ultimately would be exchanged following several months as a POW.
The film suggests that Kendall would be captured and sent to the Andersonville Prison. The prison didn’t start operating until February 1864. Grierson’s raid took place in April 1863. Historically speaking, it would be impossible. Another POW camp, maybe, but not one that isn’t in operation yet. One would think that Sinclair or the screenwriters would know this! This is one of those things that would probably take history buffs out of the film.
Visually speaking, the picture is beautiful with a brand new 4K master. Whether it’s a war drama or a Western, Ford has a way with the camera. Ford and cinematographer William Clothier take advantage of the scenery that there is to offer. The only downside is that the film’s ending feels premature. The film was supposed to end with Marlow’s men arriving in Baton Rouge. Instead, it ends early because of a stuntman’s tragic death although there is some conflicting information about this. Some sources suggest that they filmed the ending as planned. One cannot blame Ford for feeling this way. Any filmmaker would be devastated to lose a crew member during filming!
An interesting thing to note about tennis star Althea Gibson: all of her scenes were shot in Hollywood. Because of Louisiana’s segregation laws, Ford did not bring her on location for filming. They ended up using a double instead for the scenes shot on location.
Ultimately, The Horse Soldiers isn’t quite top tier John Ford but the film comes pretty darn close.
- NEW Audio Commentary by Film Historian Joseph McBride, the Author of Searching for John Ford
- Theatrical Trailer
- Optional English Subtitles
DIRECTOR: John Ford
SCREENWRITERS: John Lee Mahn and Martin Rackin
CAST: John Wayne, William Holden, with Constance Towers and Althea Gibson, Judson Pratt, Ken Curtis, Hoot Gibson, Willis Bouchey, Bing Russell, O.Z. Whitehead, Hank Worden, Chuck Hayward, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Basil Ruysdael, Carleton Young, William Leslie, William Henry, Walter Reed, Anna Lee, William Forrest, Ron Hagerthy, Russell Simpson
United Artists released The Horse Soldiers in theaters on June 26, 1959. Grade: 4/5
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