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The Horse Soldiers Review

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by Chris McEneany May 19, 2011

    The Horse Soldiers Review

    We've just taken a big look at the Duke in 1961's rowdy and fun adventure yarn The Comancheros, but several years earlier, and before the star donned many hats to wrestle his dream-project, The Alamo, on to the screen, he rode out at the head of a squabbling, blue-coated column of Union Cavalrymen on a reckless mission deep into the heart of rebel-held territory to conduct a sneak attack that would alter the fortunes of the American Civil War. The film was John Ford's sadly less-than celebrated The Horse Soldiers, a lavish take on the real-life exploits of Colonel Benjamin Grierson's 1863 guerilla campaign of hit-and-run, adapted from the novel by Harold Sinclair, that he made with his on-screen muse, John Wayne, in 1959.

    After many turns in the saddle with Ford at the head of the cinematic column, most notably in Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, Wayne was now on precisely the same wavelength as his visionary director. The two shared the same ideals and rallied to the same sense of pride. They were both harsh taskmasters, egotistical and perfectionist. And neither believed in historical revision … yet, together, they were responsible for shaping the attitudes and understanding of more than one generation of moviegoers in the ways of the West. Together, they were the dream-team of myth-making.

    The Horse Soldiers feels epic. It is about the mammoth march that hardbitten Colonel Marlowe (Wayne) leads his determined and hardened troops on in order to wreck the Confederate supply route from Newton Station to Vicksburg. It is one of those do-or-die missions that is hardly granted much chance of success even by the top brass, who concoct the tide-turning duty over brandy and cigars – atmospherically staged in the lavish car of a Union troop train. In reality the mission was surprisingly bereft of difficulties, but Ford sees to it that we get some obstacles thrown in the way of the Union commandos … and some of them rather shapely obstacles.

    Marlowe is more than up for the job – in fact he craves it. Lying to his own troops so that word of the secret guerilla mission won't get out, he is insistent that his column move out with haste and that they stop for nothing en route. But the fly in his ointment is the freshly appointed surgeon officer, Major Kendall (William Holden on top form), who is a stickler for the rules and simply refuses to play his commander's game if it means putting the men in his charge at risk. All the way along, the two are at loggerheads, one man's willpower pushed to the limits by the other as they clash over the necessity for military discipline as opposed to the compassionate duties that govern the health and well-being of the troops. The column encounters enemy scouts, ambushes and full-blown battles, but while this sort of thing is grist-for-the-mill, neither officer reckons on the intrusion that a headstrong Southern belle will make, and the severe repercussions her presence may make upon their principles and commitment to the cause. Miss Hannah Hunter (played brilliantly by the luscious Constance Towers) is the fuel that will bring the fire and brimstone that exists between the two Unionists boiling to a head. Her pretence at cordiality and decorum are a feint to hide her fierce belief in the Confederacy, and this scheming lady may just be the deadliest foe that stands between Marlowe and the success of his covert operation.

    Although designed as a tribute to the men who fought in the Civil War, as well as a fascinating recreation of a genuine mission that took place, The Horse Soldiers is a love affair for the sabre-rattling machismo of the Golden Age movie hero. But the film is more about the relationship between the two leads, and the woman who contrives to come between them throughout this perilous undertaking. And, specifically, how the things they encounter along the way conspire to change them and their attitudes to one another. It is a great film … but it is not the action extravaganza that many audiences nowadays expect to see. I know that when I was child – and an ardent lover of Westerns, and especially those that had the US Cavalry in them – I was suckered-in by the trailers for The Horse Soldiers every time it came on the TV. And every damn time that I sat through it I was profoundly disappointed by the apparent lack of large-scale battles. I suffered this with the earlier Ford/Wayne picture She Wore A Yellow Ribbon even more acutely, I should add. But that was then, and my own attitude and relationship with what John Ford was trying to achieve and the story he was attempting to tell, has irrevocably changed.

    Ford and Wayne are a whole lot cleverer than to simply portray Marlowe and his blue-clad boys as swashbuckling patriots and champions of freedom. In fact, they are hell-bent on setting this ogreish Colonel up as a cold-hearted and ruthless egotist who thinks only of the ultimate victory, and next to nothing about the personal cost that it will make upon the men under his command, or the collateral damage that they may incur along the way. The contrast is perfectly embroidered by Holden's altruistic, yet equally stubborn do-gooder who questions everything that Marlowe does and constantly infuriates him by simply doing the right thing at every opportunity. The humanitarian thing. It should be a cut and dried case. We should obviously be on-side with the surgeon and diametrically opposed to the gung-ho war-horse at the head of the column, but this is never quite the case. And we will hear of the reason why Marlowe is so distrustful of those in the medical profession and learn that his motives go much deeper than you might think. In fact, Wayne delivers a bravura sequence of paranoid confession that has always been hugely underrated by his critics and his fans alike. Attempting to throw whisky down his neck after a victory that he can find no comfort in, the Colonel is lost in a whirlwind reverie of pain and fear and regret, yet all the while fiercely aware that he is dropping his guard in front of those who need him to be stalwart and unimpeachable. The backstory to this vignette may be hackneyed, but the Duke's performance is not.

    Both Wayne and Holden absolutely excel in The Horse Soldiers. The mission may come first and the story may enjoy the taste of victories, but the film hinges upon their clash of personalities and just how they may be forced to set aside their differences if they are to achieve their aims. The really inspired thing about this set-up is that neither actually changes all that much. They may go through what we like to term as a character-arc but, in truth, both men come out the other end as basically the same … just with a little richer understanding of human nature. In this way the plot actually circumvents the clichéd finale that we all expect is coming our way.

    But the real surprise is how Constance Towers shifts through a variety of guises throughout the film, slowly peeling back layers of her duplicitous aristocrat until she has no further need of deceit nor subterfuge. Her initial performance as the sweetly condescending chatterbox, playing host to the enemy, is marvellously turned around as the mask comes off and her true hostility towards Marlowe and his men is revealed. Early flirtations with the soldiers she finds occupying her grounds are wryly humorous – such as her dinner-table offer to the uncomfortable Colonel, “Now, what was your preference … the leg, or the breast?” Holden's face is priceless, and you really expect the full complement of officers invited to her table to simply crease-up with laughter. Towers savours these early moments of Carry On-esque double-entendre, even having to suffer the indignity of getting dunked in the river and to then have her petticoats dried by grinning troopers, as well as having to get dressed again between two held up blankets. With her hair tightly coiffured in one of those overly starched bygone styles, she can look quite comical at times, yet with her wet blonde hair hanging down … even the dangerously Machiavellian Miss Hunter looks truly irresistible. Towers does well at evolving her character from sassy to haunted, her harrowed performance in the various field-hospitals that Holden sets up and her own personal grief after one particular tragedy really quite affecting.

    Ford loved his cavalry. He adored endless shots of mounted men in uniform moving out across the land. You can sense his romanticism for these bygone times right from the first frame, and in every subsequent one. And he doesn't just stick with the main band of officers, he makes sure that we see the grizzled, sweat-caked lower-ranks and hear their gruff blend of duty-bound valour and irascible grumbling. Yet his fervour for military life and the pride that goes along with it is always insidiously tampered with. He likes to test his heroes in strategic ways that don't always rely upon enemy action. Ford knew that behind every myth he created there would have to be a strength of character to back it up. His soldiers would be expected to make tough decisions and to be able to lead and to fight, so he would probe their weaknesses in other more subtle ways, attempting to discover their Achilles Heel and then endeavour to exploit it. The asinine conflagration that strikes up between Wayne's stop-at-nothing commander and Holden's Hippocratic-oath-sworn army surgeon is wonderfully played for sniping gambits that can be, by turns, arrogant and cocksure, bullish and backstabbing, and splendidly comedic. Both characters are determined to gain the upper hand, not merely to impress the damsel in their keep – in fact, rarely, as it happens – but to upstage the other in front of the men … where “saving face” matters the most. Holden's playful taunt of “Ding-dong!” (actually an expression pilfered from the lovely Miss Hannah Hunter) whenever he scores a point stays just the right side of pantomime. Wayne has no need of pithy catchphrases, he just combines a growl with his trademark drawl and, thus, the sparring carries a curious mix of the playful with the venomous. But, in so doing, the two will inevitably find some common ground, even if it comes at the expense of all that pent-up animosity.

    It is clearly Wayne's officious, war-hungry Unionist who is most at fault in this battle of wills. But it is to his credit that we never once see him as the out-and-out villain of the piece, despite many moments when he is surely the most stubborn and pathologically ill-tempered. In fact, it is often Holden's dryly observant Major who is the more astute and cunning. Without his keen nose for skulduggery, the entire mission would have been derailed almost from day one. Marlowe clearly understands this, but his pride is battered by the fact that his grinning rival was the one who smoked-out the spies in their midst, and not himself.

    Thus, the film works on three very successful levels. We have the continuing struggle between Marlowe and Kendall. There's poor Miss Hunter suffering an odyssey of her own as well as coming to terms with the harsh realities of warfare. And there is the military campaign being waged in earnest around of all this. Ford has his work cut out for him. It is true that the director probably bit off more than he could properly chew this time out. Whilst fans of period melodrama get their money's worth, it is undoubtedly certain that the bloodthirsty battle-cries of many a war-buff go unheard. There are some skirmishes here, to be sure, but there is nothing of the grand, large-scale turmoil that the film's trailer so tantalisingly promises. But if this is what galled me all those years ago, I can safely say that the tactical battle of wills and wits that the bizarre central triangle of protagonists weave more than makes up for the lack of carnage.

    But then Ford doesn't exactly forget that this a war film, either.

    The ambush at the rail station is a great set-piece, and the inspired thing about it is that we are under absolutely no illusion that Johnny Reb could do anything other than lose. When they tumble out of the rolling carriages to launch a counter-assault on the Northern forces occupying their town, our sympathies holler and shout with them rather than against them, so desperate and ramshackle do they look. The glory of carrying the flag, each man wielding it cut down in the intense fire from the Union barricades, and another then taking his place, equally doomed, is brilliantly conveyed. But the fight is so one-sided that it is clear that Ford wants to twist our allegiances, just as we can see Miss Hunter being pulled one way and the other with her own convictions coming under fire. This is the sort of battle that films about the Civil War tend not to depict and Ford marshals the town setting very well, with an exciting build-up to the encounter as the Unionists realise that the enemy is coming for them and rush to erect some hasty defences. He brings pathos and regimented chaos to the sequence when young Confederate cadets are whisked into action as the only Southern force able to mount a cohesive counter-offensive as Marlowe's company push ever-deeper into Southern territory. As the baby-soldiers march off to engage the Northern invaders, a frantic mother drags her son away from the column, but the allure of glory, fuelled by the battle-pomp of flutes and drums, has the smart young warrior escaping her clutches and returning to join his comrades. This is a galvanising vision that Ford uses quite brilliantly. We are naturally backing the Union cavalry, yet how can we bear to see children going off to war, even if they are fighting for the wrong side? Truly, we don't want to witness the “good guys” firing upon this pint-size battalion. But Ford, ever the master-tactician, pulls rank on us yet again and supplies a terrific pay-off to this gut-wrenching dilemma that becomes actually quite amusing. Only he could have gotten away with this.

    A great little cameo from Strother Martin, as one of two Southern hobo-deserters who manage to unwittingly distract the advance of Marlowe's force, provides another canny little switcheroo for Ford. We think we know how Wayne is going to deal with this stalling incident, but the Colonel then pulls something else out of the bag, something quite visceral. This sort of thematic chop 'n' change is standard operating procedure for The Horse Soldiers, and even if the film can be quite leisurely in its momentum, it keeps you on your toes. It is all going to come to that inevitable physical head-to-head, but Ford knows that the “bigger picture” must then take over. He’s built up the tension between the two duelling personalities, a confrontation we all know is looming and have been longing to see, but he brilliantly upstages their pride-stoked mano-et-mano with the pressing aggression of the surrounding circumstances of all-out war, the intervening battle like a bruised truce between the two, actually getting in their way, as it were.

    There is obviously going to be the meeting of souls – the film would be without reason otherwise – but Ford and his writers, and the powerful couplet of Wayne and Holden, totally abscond with the usual contrivances of embittered acceptance and remain reluctant compatriots. This is refreshing to see amid the swirling and tempestuous glory of the final battle – our two warring heroes doggedly performing the duties that each does best though, finally, with a semblance of shared objective.

    Authenticity can be found in the uniforms – the fancy red under-shorts of the Unionists and the rag-tag, hand-me-down garb of the Southern militia as opposed to the battle-worn tunics of the regulars, and the crisp attire of the military cadets, by far the most resplendent combatants in the field – and the hardware. Springfield carbines bark and rasp and canon roar. Sack-cloth holdalls and blankets slung over the shoulder set the dishevelled rebels apart from their more sprightly and cooler-looking counterparts in blue, with their natty little caps and that bright yellow stripe down their pants. But check out the scouts that Marlowe sends out in plain-clothes – what a fantastic clutch of vintage varmints these fellows are. Top hats and outsized costume-box garments – they look like Harpo Marx, and this adds a lot of historical colour to a conflict so often portrayed as being merely blue and grey. The farmlands and meadows of Louisiana make for a lush contrast to Ford's normally arid landscapes, and DOP William H. Clothier creates many scenic passages of the cavalry line weaving across them. And you have to admire the showboating money-shot of a wounded Wayne charging across a bridge as the structure blows up behind him – this is the sort of image that would propel practically every action-star through their own explosive adventures ever since.

    John Buttolph supplies the jingoistic score, but fans will almost certainly pick up on the gentle refrains hailing from Max Steiner's famous theme for Wayne's statuesque signature character Ethan Edwards from Ford's The Searchers. Steiner's music would permeate many a Western, of course, and it is difficult not to welcome the inclusion here, coming as it does during an emotional high-point. Other than this, the score is not all that memorable, which is something of a surprise given the often rousing nature of the story.

    John Ford only visited the American Civil War once more after The Horse Soldiers, and that was in his segment of the epic How The West Was Won, once again accommodating the Duke and affording a sort of tribute to the conflict as a whole. With The Horse Soldiers, Ford took a real-life heroic mission and depicted it solidly through the hearts and minds of his two warring lead characters. He didn’t take the more conventional, though obviously more spectacular route of merely blowing lots of things up and presenting us with relentless charges and gunfire … and this is, ironically, the thing that endears the film to me now, all these years after I first experienced disappointment with it on the TV on Saturday afternoons when all I wanted to see was carnage.

    The Horse Soldiers is not up there with the best of Ford’s Westerns, although it does have everything in it that you would want to see in a Ford Western. It is brazen, macho, full of swagger, but it is not afraid to poke fun at such heroic posturing whilst still paying the utmost respect to the myth of glorious valour.

    Hardly stirring, but always entertaining with lively banter and characters that can effortlessly run the gamut of comedy, pathos and heroism.