Directed by John Ford
A Union outfit slips behind Confederate lines to destroy enemy railroads. Along the way they encounter a Southern woman who along with the unit’s doctor cause problems during the mission.
Some of the conflict in this film is generated because Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) must wrestle with the demons of his past and that includes ill feelings towards physicians. His wife died after being operated on mistakenly for a tumor that was not there. The unit’s doctor, Major Henry ‘Hank’ Kendall (William Holden), is the focus of his hatred here. Marlowe and Kendall clash from the get-go. Col. Marlowe is one to force his soldiers, fit or not, to go on but Kendall countermands him at several points as some of these men are not fit for one reason or another. It helps complete the set up of the animosity between the two. During the course of the story both come to an understanding as both must work together to complete the mission. It is interesting to watch as Marlowe’s dislike for all doctors shifts into respect for Kendall during the course of the film.
The introduction of Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) is a wonderful display of suggestive dialogue. When Miss Hannah Hunter bends over with a plate of chicken, revealing her cleavage to Marlowe and asks “Do you prefer the leg…or the breast?” and Marlowe responds “I’ve had quite enough of both, thank you” is some great stuff and one of my favorite innuendos in film. Supposedly this is a direct repeat of dialogue between Grace Kelley and Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief. Modern movies have forgotten how to do dialogue like thatis for some reason.
Colonel John Marlowe is a complicated character here. He has a sense of honor and justice that is based on a moral code and not something more mercurial. A good example is that in one scene they encounter two Confederate deserters that have captured a local sheriff that was hunting them. You would think that Marlowe would automatically welcome them into the ranks but instead he punches both of them and leaves them in the care of the sheriff he has now freed not only because they are former Confederate soldiers but also because it is implied are not very good people and that they would be “dead weight” in his words.
The acting is solid by all even Wayne who is not known as a great actor. And he was not. John Wayne was a movie star and there is a difference between a movie star and an actor. A movie star can get people in the seats regardless of how good or bad they are. An actor has no such power. A modern equivalent would be Dwayne Johnson. He is a movie star. People go to see his films regardless of the plot or the acting. He hit the ground running with The Scorpion King, a decidedly not good yet entertaining film, and has been getting butts in seats since. Robert Downey Jr. is an actor. While he may have been Iron Man and may have been in the hugely successful Avengers films, those movies were not successful because of RDJ. They were part of the MCU with millions of fans going to see each film and the Avengers films for the interwoven threads. Dolittle on the other hand never quite rose to the earning level of any of his MCU films. Nor was he able to get the movie that he turned Gravity down for made. That is because he is an actor.
I never got the romance between Miss Hannah and Marlowe. It just came out of the blue at the end of the film. Romantic parts were a given of films at the time and I do not begrudge this movie for that but everything that preceded the moment where Marlowe declares his love for Miss Hannah indicated she was going for Kendall and not Marlowe. I am curious if this was Wayne flexing his star power to be the manly man in the film or it was a decision that was already existing in the script for some reason.
This is an entertaining late 50s drama starring John Wayne and William Holden. The film is good throughout but it just kind of ends. This is due in large part to the death of a stuntman friend of John Ford who died from an injury while working on the movie. Reportedly the death really hit him and removed his will to do the movie and understandably so.
Ford knew how to shoot a movie, and this is no different. It is a wonderful looking film and I am sure the planned battle would have been epic but alas the will to complete the movie was no longer with him.
Overall The Horse Soldiers is a great film. It is an epic drama with strong characters with fantastic dialogue wrapped in a good story. This is a must-see classic film.