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HORSE SOLDIERS, THE (director: John Ford; screenwriters: John Lee Mahin/Martin Rackin/From book by Harold Sinclair; cinematographer: William H. Clothier; editor: Jack Murray; cast: John Wayne (Colonel Marlowe), William Holden (Major Kendall), Constance Towers (Hannah Hunter), Althea Gibson (Lukey), Judson Pratt (Sgt. Maj. Kirby), Hoot Gibson (Brown), Willis B. Bouchey (Col. Phil Secord), Carleton Young (Col. Jonathan Miles), Hank Worden (Deacon), Strother Martin (Virgil); Runtime: 119; United Artists; 1959)
“This is a quintessential John Ford Western.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a quintessential John Ford Western. There are all his stock characters present, the rousing song to stir one’s heart is there as the cavalry troops ride by with Stan Jones singing ‘I Left My Love,’ there is the formula story of the men in order to be respected as soldiers must prove themselves in combat; and, finally, Ford’s ongoing patriotic message that this country is for everyone who has the guts to fight for it.

Harold Sinclair’s novel is based on this actual Civil War mission. The film proves interesting because of Ford’s odd touches in certain scenes and with the presence of John Wayne, who gives the film a powerful symbol by just being himself.

In one powerful scene the pacifist-leaning surgeon Major Kendall (William Holden) and the gung-ho, company commander, Colonel Marlowe (John Wayne), argue about what comes first, humanitarian treatment or one’s Army duty. After the outfit’s first squirmish Kendall stops in a Negro’s cabin to deliver a child and receives an order from Marlowe to stop what he’s doing: telling him the mission is the most important thing. It is a fundamental argument that has plagued mankind about war ever since the beginning of time: What is the right way to fight a good war when the object is to kill the enemy? The scene also had a white Union soldier dying and a Negro child being born into freedom with the help of the Army doctor, symbolic of the war’s effort to be for a good cause.

The film is set in 1863 as the practical-minded Colonel Marlowe is ordered by General Sherman to take a cavalry brigade 300 miles into enemy territory and destroy the railroad depot and all the tracks between Newton Station and Vicksburg, cutting off supplies to the South. There is no plan made for how they are to return to friendly territory, except they should incur as few casualties as possible.

Ford is more interested in the characters than the story itself. The characters are all his familiar ones: the new Sergeant Major Kirby (Judson Pratt) likes to drink but is a good fighter, which makes him acceptable in Ford’s eyes. Col. Phil Secord (Willis B. Bouchey) is a politician in civilian life, with designs on using his Army record to help him get elected as a congressman back in Michigan. Ford doesn’t like politicians, they are too willing to compromise their principles. Secord does his job but is too ambitious to be thought of as a hero. The heroes are Colonel Marlowe, a railroad engineer in civilian life, who is asked in his military life to destroy what he builds in civilian life. Marlowe is a bitter man unhappy that his wife was unsuccessfully operated on by two doctors, leaving him with only memories of her and a deep hatred for doctors. But there is no question of his ability to lead and his bravery in combat, and as hard-boiled as he is there will be the scene that shows he is a just man. He will stop his troops from firing on Rebel kid soldiers. Kendall is an equally obstinate man, a medical man who is dedicated to saving lives and is willing to stand up to his superior to fight for what he believes in. He will also prove himself in battle as someone who is a dedicated surgeon and willing to make the tough decisions needed to treat the men properly.

To add some spice and romance to the tale, Marlowe takes over Hannah Hunter’s (Constance Towers) mansion. She’s an attractive Southern belle who tricks him into thinking she’s a bimbo, and thereby discovers his military plans. So he is forced to take her and her loyal Negro slave Lukey (Althea Gibson) along. Hunter is well-thought of by Marlowe for her being feisty, horsemanship, loyalty to her cause, and the concern she has for Lukey. As the two fight with each other throughout, by the film’s climax they find they are in love and look at themselves in a new light after all the battles and horrors they have been through. For Ford it is another heavy symbolic moment, pointing out that the country will only stand strong when it can love one another again and learn to respect those who fought for what they believed in. Ford saves his anger for his real enemies, two Confederate deserters. One of the deserters is a thief played by the character actor Strother Martin. He gets knocked out by Marlowe and turned over to the local sheriff as a deserter. Ford does not put up with cowards in his films, for long.

The film has a lot of gory surgery scenes, which included showing the amputation of a leg. That was a common operation during the Civil War. It gave the film an accurate historical perspective. It also showed some violent battle scenes, especially when the Union forces take Newton Station and the out-manned Confederate ragtag soldiers fight bravely knowing they don’t have a prayer. In one scene, children from a military school are drawn into battle out of necessity by their elders and Marlowe shows the good sense to retreat rather than to slaughter the brave but foolish youngsters.

This is surprisingly the only feature film Ford made that was set during the Civil War (he did direct a segment in “How The West Was Won” about the CW and his “The Prisoner of Shark Island” came close to being a CW story, but it was more about the assassination of Lincoln rather than about the war itself).

Ford does a good job of pointing out the more noble reasons why the war was necessary. In Ford’s oeuvre, this film would rate somewhere in the middle. It threw out some diverting ideas, making it greater than your typical Western.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”