Well, we have to applaud the engineers of this AVC hi-def encode for not hitting the DNR button and not opting to colour boost this vintage gem. The film looks grubby and grainy and all the better for it. The image is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect, the print looking pretty much untouched-up, digitally speaking, and clearly un-restored, and the lack of such tampering makes the resulting picture one that appears faithful, strongly coloured, but happily damage-free and robust. I say “damage-free” but, as you would expect, there is still some speckle and pop, but these occurrences are slight, vague and totally inconsequential. Patches of discolouration are not a problem either, and the disc handles the panning shots and fast-action without any hiccups.
Colours are strong, but not overly vibrant. Reds are nice and heavy, often acting as a good contrast against the blue tunics and the greenery of the setting. Yellow stripes, insignia and piping, and the silver or brass buttons on display are sharply presented. There's no problems with the blues and the greens either, the image keeps any smearing from the leaves and foliage at bay, along with keeping the swathes of cavalry tunics neatly in-check. The white dresses worn by Constance Towers manage not to bloom, and skin-tones, ruddy and swarthy, do not exhibit any untoward highlight sheen. Blacks are strong and suitably deep without becoming Stygian. I don't think there is any detail being masked within them. Contrast remains pretty decent, even if the image is often a touch dark, and works well with the earthy tone of the environment and the crisp colours of the uniforms. There is a degree of continual wavering taking place, but this did not prove distracting to me.
Detail is hardly going to amaze, but the image yields a wealth of information that I doubt has ever appeared this clear on home video. We can see the stitching on the rank stripes, the finer plaid on Kendall's shirt, the coarse weave on the blankets and the splinters of wood hurled into the air by gun-fire and canon-shell. Some shots are softer than others, but there are many occasions when the image is quite crisp and cleanly delineated – Wayne striding past the wooden walls of the log-cabin near the end, for instance. The little ornaments and furnishings in Greenbriar, the mansion-house owned by Hannah Hunter, offer lots for the picture to show off, although the little flames of the candles still look quite weak. Far-off detail is holds understandably less integrity, but I have to say that the extensive travelogue shots offer some greatly rendered compositions of troops, buildings and the natural landscape. The grain provides an ever-constant texture, but does not obscure the details underneath. There is even a degree of three-dimensionality, though this is more in evidence with the interiors than with the outdoor action scenes. DOP William Clothier really knows how to create depth with the shots structured in Miss Hunter's mansion, or the saloon-cum-field-hospital. There are times when edges look enhanced. Some ringing can be discerned around objects seen in silhouette against the sky, but this is all part of the film's vintage photography and not something that had been added to the transfer. And with all the charging about, it is nice to see no evidence of aliasing.
All in all, I was pleased with this transfer. There is nothing revelatory about it, but it certainly wipes the floor with any previous video edition.
I cannot possibly wax lyrical about the experience awarded from a DTS-HD MA mono audio track, other than to say that it does exactly what it should.
The score, along with some notable Civil War anthems, is issued without any qualms. It doesn't sound particularly warm, but nor is hollow or harsh. The male choir that sings the specially written Cavalry theme has that glorious strident quality of the era, providing a boisterous flurry of patriotism for the track to savour. The more subtle elements come over reasonably well, such as the little phrases recalled for duty from Steiner's The Searchers. You are unlikely to experience any problems with the presentation of the film's dialogue which may not be all that dynamically prioritised but still bubbles about with the various accents and the acerbic tongues of both Wayne and Holden. I did spot a couple of moments when voices noticeably dropped in volume, but this should be too uncomfortable.
Naturally there are a lot of gunshots and thundering horses' hooves. Sadly, the battle scenes sound tight and less distinct than I had expected from a lossless track, but of course this is all down to the source material. As it stands there is some very slight aggression added to the skirmishing and the shrapnel-flinging explosions, especially when the bridge is blown up at the end.
Overall, this is about as crisp and clear as you could reasonably hope for. The track sounds “old” and un-refreshed, but better that than unnecessarily bolstered with a mix that doesn't suit it.
We get nothing other the film's protracted and grandiose theatrical trailer.
Wayne may be as relaxed as he would be in many of the films that followed, but he still delivers a fine performance that is full of the quintessential Duke-isms. It is evident that he had to raise his game with the ever-sniping presence of William Holden, but the two make for a dynamic pair of squabbling heavyweights in John Ford's rather poorly received Civil War oater, The Horse Soldiers.
Yet despite the film's relative lack of box office acclaim and often neglected status in the canon of both Ford and Wayne, this is a very entertaining and ultimately quite rewarding drama. The real backdrop of the story adds a level of historical authenticity to the usual myth-making that Ford revelled in, and the strict adherence to character ensures that the action never dominates the intelligent and occasionally moving conflict between the leads. Actually very funny in places, it is great to see Wayne sending himself up at a time when he was still something of an egotistical behemoth. The Horse Soldiers is old school fun that packs humour, cavalry charges, pathos, and even a crafty smidgeon of romance into its saddle-bags. For fans of either Wayne or Ford, it is a very welcome addition to Blu-ray. The transfer is faithful and film-like, though sadly unrestored, and the lack of extras is frustrating, but this is fine vintage fare happily unmolested by digital tomfoolery.
Far from top-drawer, then, but still well worth the ride.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.