The Horse Soldiers: John Ford’s lone stab at a Civil War Western is consistently entertaining and features strong performances from John Wayne and William Holden

Though Director John Ford has been the pre-eminent chronicler of American history, he has never made a film set during the American civil war. The Horse Soldiers (1959), starring John Wayne and William Holden, which came pretty much at the end of his illustrious career was the only film set during that period. Though not among the best films of Ford, it’s still a worthy addition to his cannon.

Making films about the American civil war has always been a dicey proposition; usually, the history of any war is written by the victors, but the problem with a civil war, especially the American one, is that the victors and the vanquished are now indivisible part of the American union, so peddling the Yankee narrative in the civil war movies is not going to go down well with in the southern markets- which forms a substantial part of the American box office. Though the commonly accepted theory is that civil war was fought to abolish slavery, it goes without saying that there were far deeper socio-economic-political issues involved. Obviously, nobody in Hollywood wanted to go seriously into them, neither the northerners or the southerners; though it could be argued that most of the films set during the civil war were more sympathetic to the southern ’cause’, nevertheless, hardly any of them went deeply into analyzing the causes of the war and its devastating after effects, except in a highly romanticized or kitschy manner, as in spectacular romantic epics like Gone with the Wind(1939). So it’s understandable why someone of John Ford’s stature, who’s the pre-eminent American filmmaker and chronicler of its history never ventured into the civil war territory for his films. Ford made movies set before the civil war: Drums along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, etc. , but most of his great movies were set in the post-civil war period, when America was at war with the ‘Indian’ Nations. Obviously, the native American tribes were a far more convenient and simplistic enemy for white America to deal with rather than the spectacle of white Americans fighting white Americans. Also, unlike someone like David Lean, who was a more fastidious dramatizer of history, Ford was a mythmaker, and the civil war was never a an appropriate amphitheater for creating myths. That’s why i believe that Ford’s 1959 film, The Horse Soldiers. deserves more attention and scrutiny from Fordphiles as well as general movie connoisseurs, because it’s the only film that the master director has made with the civil war as backdrop. He would later direct the civil war episode of the all-star cast Cinerama epic, How the West was won(1962), but that was a trifle, and he was one among many directors who worked on that film. One reason why The Horse soldiers is not highly regarded is because, to be very honest, it’s not top-tier Ford, for which there are several reasons, but more than that, it has the misfortune of being sandwiched between Ford’s greatest Western, The Searchers (1956) and his last great Western, The Man who shot Liberty Valance(1962). But still, no John Ford Western can ever be totally bad, and this is very much a solid entertaining film with some great signature touches from the master filmmaker. So it’s surprising that even with a stellar cast consisting of many of Ford’s regular actors – including his favorite ‘son’, superstar John Wayne, and a welcome new addition in William Holden, the memory of this film seems to have, maybe not totally disappeared, but at least dimmed considerably in public consciousness and among movie intelligentsia.

The basic plot of this film is something that was more standard for the World War II ‘Men on a Mission” adventure picture that was becoming very popular at the time. It deals with sending a group of brave hearts behind enemy lines in a sabotage mission to destroy the enemies’ resources and get back to safety. David lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai(1957) was the film that launched this template and it was a big critical and commercial success. The influence of that film on The Horse Soldiers is very visible, even though the film is loosely based on Harold Sinclair’s 1956 novel of the same name that itself was a fictionalized version of Grierson’s Raid in Mississippi. Like in “River Kwai”, the film deals with sending a troop of union soldiers deep into Confederate territory. The year is 1863 and the war is in full force. Despite their superior military power, the union army is loosing to the Confederacy, mainly because the southern boys are more adept at riding and shooting than the Yankees. To grab the upper hand, the Union high command tasks Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) to a lead a mission behind Confederate lines to destroy a railroad and supply depot at Newton Station, which is more than 200 miles deep inside the confederate territory. Naturally, it’s more of a suicide mission, because returning back North from there after successfully completing the mission seems impossible; they would either be killed or could be captured and put in Andersonville POW camp– an overcrowded (to four times its capacity) Confederate prison, with inadequate water supply, inadequate food and unsanitary conditions- which is worse than death. Marlowe draws up an even more ambitious plan for the mission; instead of retreating back, he will continue to advance through the south and meet up with Union forces at Baton Rouge. But the mission starts on the wrong foot when Marlowe realizes that his troops are going to be considerably reduced and his regiment has been tagged with a medical unit, as per the Union regulations. To make things worse, it’s ‘hate at first sight’ between Marlowe and regimental surgeon, Major Henry Kendall (William Holden); Marlowe has an inherent hatred for doctors ever since his wife died after she was mistreated by two surgeons. To Add to that, Kendall turns out to be a ‘by the book’ medical officer who closely scrutinizes the fitness of the soldiers for the mission and removes anyone whom he sees unfit, thus depleting Marlowe’s regiment even further. Another problem: since Marlowe’s mission is a clandestine operation, it depends a lot on the speed with which he can move his troops; but now tagged with a medical unit, he will be forced to provide his wounded men with medical support- which would slow him down considerably- rather than abandoning them and moving ahead.

It goes without saying that the main conflict in the film is not between Union and Confederate forces but between Marlowe and Kendall; the soldier who’s trained to take life and the doctor who’s trained to preserve life is going to be at loggerheads throughout the film. This element gives an extra dimension to what could have been a regular cavalry Western. Indeed, these nuances and innovative situations, character traits and relationships are what distinguishes one John Ford Western from another, which on a broad level seems to follow the same template and consist of same tropes (or clichés). This film too has an abundance of Fordian tropes, clichés and trademark Irish humor; starting with the colorful supporting cast that comprises Marlowe’s regiment filled up with Ford regulars like Ken Curtis and Hank Worden. In addition to Kendall, another distraction for Marlowe will be Col. Phil Secord (Willis Bouchey- another Ford regular), a politically ambitious officer who’s planning to run for congress, and who continually second-guesses Marlowe’s orders and command decisions. There’s also a wannabe actor, Maj. Richard Gray(William Leslie), who quotes Shakespeare (reminiscent of the actor quoting Hamlet in My Darling Clementine.

The moment Marlowe and his men enter confederate territory, they face setbacks, as they are immediately attacked by a small unit of Confederate army. With their cover blown, Marlowe is forced to to create a diversion by sending one third of his troops back north, so that the Confederates will think that he is retreating. Now with his regiment further weakened, his odds at completing the mission seems even less. On top of that Kendall continues to prove to be a nuisance to Marlowe; strenuously insisting on treating the wounded and thus slowing down their progress; Worse, he leaves his post to help out a women in a nearby slave village in delivering a baby. Marlowe can’t take this anymore and puts Kendall under arrest, restricting his services only to the troops. As the regiment continue to advance deep into south they decide to stopover for rest at Greenbriar Plantation- a typical southern estate owned by Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers), who showers Marlowe and his troops with southern hospitality offering them lodgings and food and merrily flirting with everyone especially Marlowe. But soon it’s revealed that Miss Hunter’s charming hostess act is a masquerade as she has enough spy-holes carved into her house, and she and her slave, Lukey (Althea Gibson) are caught red-handed by Kendall while they are eavesdropping on a staff meeting where Marlowe is discussing his battle strategy with fellow officers. To protect the secrecy of the mission, Marlowe is forced to take the two women with him. So now, apart from Kendall, Marlowe has one more antagonist to contend with on the journey; and both Marlowe and Hunter bicker bitterly throughout. Not only that, her continued attempts to escape as well as draw the attention of Confederate troops towards them would put Marlowe’s mission repeatedly in danger. After a hilarious episode involving a local sheriff and some thugs, the regiment manage to make it to Newton Station without further causalities.

This whole section of this film is rather lackluster, with the pace continuously lagging as the film becomes episodic and repetitive. But once the regiment reaches Newton Station, John Ford gets back into form, creating great sequences of drama and action. First, we get a terrific sequence where the union army is welcomed by feisty southern belles by throwing dirt at them, and then there’s a rousing battle scene with a superb build up: Marlowe’s regiment manages to capture the station without much effort; then Kendall runs into the CSA commanding officer, Col. Jonathan Miles (Carleton Young), who is an old fiend of Kendall. Kendall is surprised that someone as valiant and spirited as Miles would surrender so quickly. That’s when Marlowe’s “Soldier’s instincts” senses an impending attack and he hurriedly goes about organizing his army; and true to his predomination, a train loaded with confederate soldiers arrive just in time to take on the Union army, but by then Marlowe has managed to build a solid defense and easily manages to overpower the Confederates. The entire Confederate army is either killed or wounded in the attack, an act that makes Marlowe sick; he hadn’t wanted to engage the enemy; he just wanted to peacefully finish his mission and move out if that was possible. So as Kendall is busy attending to the wounded with the support of Miss. Hunter, and the rest of the union regiment is busy burning and blowing up railroads and other provisions necessary for the Southern army, Marlowe drowns himself in liquor. We realize that Marlowe was a railroad engineer before the war, and there’s nothing more tragic for such a man than to be responsible for destroying the very same things he proudly constructed once. It’s also here that his reason for his disdain for doctors is also revealed as he discloses the events surrounding the death of his wife to Miss. Hunter. The scene has a drunk and dejected Marlowe repeatedly throwing bottles and breaking up glasses arranged in order on the bartender’s slab; in what is one among a great array of John Ford scenes where we have Wayne throwing things around to signify a shift in the protagonist’s character at a critical juncture in the narrative- Remember the scene in “The Searchers” where Wayne throws a stone into the nearby pool on the creek and Natalie Wood miraculously emerges out of the landscape. This is also the scene where Miss. Hunter starts developing feelings for Marlowe, despite the fact that he’s a Yankee, and it will grow into love eventually.

Now that his mission is successfully completed, Marlowe leads his regiment across the south into Baton Rouge, but the Confederate army now realizes his plans and they decide to use young cadets from the Jefferson Military Academy to stop – or at least slow down- the advancing regiment, which would give them enough time to organize an army to take on the Union regiment. The head of the academy is shocked by this request from the Confederate high command to send 15 and 16 year olds into battle against Yankees, but finally relents seeing the emergency of the situation. Meanwhile, the conflict between Marlowe and Kendall comes to a boil with Kendall challenging Marlowe to a duel; they ride out into the nearby woods for an all out fistfight, but before they could finish, they come under attack from the cadets. Seeing the delicacy of the situation Marlowe decides to retreat rather than kill the young kids. he finds an alternate route through the swamps and they finally manage to reach the bridge that must be stormed in order to access the Union lines. Marlowe and his regiment manages to capture the bridge, but a lot of Union army men, including Marlowe are injured in the firefight. Now it’s payback time for Kendall, as he gets the opportunity to treat Marlowe. He not only gets Marlowe back on his feet to lead his regiment, but in doing so manages to divest Marlowe of the hatred he was feeling for Doctors. Marlowe decides to blow up the bridge as it will halt the advancing Confederate army who’s hot on their pursuit, and will give him sufficient time to get to Baton Rouge. But the Wounded requires continuous attention from Kendall, so, in a self-sacrificial act, Kendall decides to stay back with them in Confederate territory, certain that he will be captured and imprisoned when the Confederate army gets there. Marlowe shakes hands with Kendall, kisses Miss. Hunter goodbye, lights the fuse to the explosive charges rigged on the bridge, and is the last of his men to cross the bridge before it is destroyed. The film ends with Marlowe leading his regiment onwards to Baton Rouge.

As it is evident from the storyline, the civil war is just another playground for John Ford to illustrate the bravery and chivalry of the American army. In that regard, it’s just another of his ‘cavalry’ Westerns; he just trades in the majestic red beauty of Monument Valley for the lush greenery of Louisiana and Mississippi. Equal respect is paid to the Confederate army as he does to the “Men in blue”. Suffice to say that Ford, who served in second world war as Admiral, respects and admires all military personnel irrespective of their colors. Also reminiscent of his cavalry trilogy is the fact that even though Marlowe and his regiment is shown to be on a secret mission, that doesn’t prevent Ford from painting in his trademark vivid images of Cavalry marching orderly against the horizon while loudly singing rousing marching songs. And as he’s a gentle filmmaker, who prefers humor and sentimentality to too much blood or violence on screen, many of the serious sequences and battle scenes in the film takes on a very different tone from the actual events from that they are inspired by; like the battle with the young cadets that was inspired from the real-life brutal battle of New Market; here it is played for laughs and shows the gentle side of Marlowe and the Union army. In actuality, in retaliation for their defeat in the battle of New Market in which Cadets of Virginia Military institute participated, the union army later burned down the institute. Ford’s gentle attitude is evident in the treatment of slavery as well; It’s either ignored or brushed aside, with Union army using terms like ‘Contraband’ for the slaves owned by the southerners; also, the characterization of the slave-girl, Luke, played by tennis star Althea Gibson is simplistic, and she is killed soon enough in the film in a skirmish between the two armies- In that regard the character is very similar to the character of the Indian girl, ‘Look” in “The Searchers”.

But the real heart of the film is the conflict between Marlowe and Kendal, and the film benefits immensely from having stars of the caliber of Wayne and Holden in these roles who are not only great performers and personalities but also brings along with them a history, both reel and real. The (real or presumed) off-screen personas of these heroes enriches the film; both Wayne and Holden being considered to be on the opposite sides of the political divide and their philosophies. complements the characters they are playing here. Also, Wayne’s recent Western appearances include tough characters like the Sheriff in Rio Bravo and Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, while Holden was coming off the mega success of David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, where he played the realist, pacifist American soldier. The relationship between Marlowe and Kendell mirrors the relationship between Jack Hawkins’ aggressive soldier, Warden, and Holden’s Shears, or even further Alec Guinness’ Mad Colonel Nicolson and James Donald’s pragmatic Doctor Clifton from “River Kwai”. The film also ends with a “Bridge-blowing” scene reminiscent of “River Kwai”. Ford and David Lean were good friends and Lean has always acknowledged the influence of Ford in his transformation from maker of small-scale Charles Dickens and Noel Coward adaptations to the maker of spectacular widescreen epics. We can find the influence of Ford on “River Kwai” and it can be further felt in lean’s magnum opus, Lawrence of Arabia(1962). So it is interesting to see Ford taking inspiration from Lean on this.

The making of this film was very traumatic for Ford. Though Wayne was always at his back and call, the same cannot be said of Holden, who fought bitterly with Ford throughout the shooting. Though Wayne and Holden got on fine, Holden never made another film with Ford (or for that matter Wayne). Ford’s health was failing at the time and he was advised by his doctors to quit drinking; this meant that Ford was in a foul mood during the shoot, insisting that everybody else give up drinking as well. The Curmudgeon that he was, he became much more rougher and tougher on the cast and crew. But he biggest tragedy was that a stuntman, Fred Kennedy, died during the shooting of the climax scenes of the film. Ford was very close to the Kennedy and, after this tragedy, he simply lost interest, winding up the film without shooting the planned ending portions which would have had Col. Marlowe triumphantly arriving in Baton Rouge- instead Ford abruptly ended the film after the blowing up of the bridge. And after overcoming all these problems, when the film was finally released, it was not the success it was expected to be, clearly showing that John Ford was losing his connect with the audience. But all said and done, the film is still a respectful addition to the illustrious Ford cannon; the film shot in DeLuxe color by the great cinematographer (and Ford and Wayne regular) William H. Clothier is as visually beautiful as any great ford film. There are moments of drama, action, humor and even romance that’s as touching and entertaining as in any great ford film; Constance Towers is equal parts annoying and effective, but i wish the character was played by Maureen O’ Hara; only thing is that the film fails to match up to Ford’s best works in its cumulative effect. And of course, this is the rare instance where the master filmmaker ventured into civil war territory; he had planned to make a biopic on Ulysses S. Grant (who makes a brief appearance at the beginning of this film) but it never materialized; and even if the civil war is more or less used as a colorful and interesting background for the standard ‘John Ford’ military adventures, it’s the only one we have on this subject from him; a subject which we wish he had tackled more often.


3 thoughts on “The Horse Soldiers: John Ford’s lone stab at a Civil War Western is consistently entertaining and features strong performances from John Wayne and William Holden

  1. If you ignore the characters names, and consider them the same cavalry officer, watched in this order, (The Horse Soldiers/Rio Grande/Fort Apache/She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) Ford’s Cavalry films cover the career of Wayne’s officer from Civil War to retirement in the West.

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