- Directed by John Ford
- June 12, 1959
- Loosely based on Harold Sinclair’s 1956 novel The Horse Soldiers
A fictionalized version of Grierson’s Raid in Mississippi.
They just do not make them like The Horse Soldiers anymore. Then again the Western as a genre is barely alive and resides mostly in the realm of low budget indie films. Not so when this was made. You could attract big names, big budgets, and big directors.
This is a classic John Ford/John Wayne pairing. It is as much a story about war as it is an adventure (at points) though not strictly war as adventure. There are lighter moments mixed in with the more serious game of mostly mouse with a touch of cat as the Union soldiers travel carefully through Confederate territory.
From the start there is friction between Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) and his newly assigned brigade surgeon Major Henry ‘Hank’ Kendall (William Holden). Both clash over their opposing views on how to best tend to the men. Marlowe in true Wayne fashion is much more tough love while Kendall takes a softer touch.
Marlowe, a railroad construction engineer before the war, is sent behind Confederate lines to destroy a railroad and supply depot at Newton Station. A dangerous mission that only serves to entrench Marlowe in his ways and create greater friction between he and his surgeon. Not that Kendall is completely blameless. Holden gives the character a smarty pants quality that borders at points on malicious compliance.
Marlowe is more complex than just some duty-bound soldier. He is an individual that’s not happy with his duties. He would rather be back building railroads than destroying them. He would rather be back in civilian life than sending men to die. While he may be a hard and tough man, he’s prepping his troops to survive rather than die because he wants them all to live.
He wasn’t also needlessly violent. He used his brains and just a little level of fairness to get by. A good example of this is when Marlowe and his men come across acting Southern Sheriff Henry Goodbody (Russell Simpson) who is about to be hanged by Rebel deserters Jackie Jo (Denver Pyle) and Virgil (Strother Martin).
Marlowe gets what he needs from them and then essentially turns them over to Goodbody so they can be turned over to Confederate authorities, who will most likely shoot them. And by the time they would get to anybody that their information would be useful to it would be useless. It’s a smart move that keeps things quiet and earns a bit of gratitude from someone who might otherwise turn them in as well as dealing with possible baggage.
Kendall is war weary. Holden makes him, well, mom of the group as he is much more maternal than Marlowe. Not to sound silly but he is much more likely to kiss and make it better while Marlowe will give you a stern look and tell you to walk it off. He repeatedly seeks to temper Marlowe.
Along the way through Confederate Territory they encounter Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) when they commandeer her plantation of Greenbriar. She is not a character to be wooed by Kendall or Marlowe though that is a byproduct of her presence. She is a Confederate loyalist who uses her brains and sexuality to appear as less of a threat than she actually is. You could be forgiven for not quite getting that her loyal servant Lukey (Althea Gibson) is actually property as they have a relationship more akin to friends.
In a rather suggestive scene, Miss Hannah Hunter while bending over with a plate of chicken in hand and revealing ample cleavage asks Marlowe “Do you prefer the leg…or the breast?” Marlowe responds, “I’ve had quite enough of both, thank you.” Rather dirty below the surface but also a fine example of how this female character was playing the same game as the men in an era when all too often women in film were simply reflective of the men. Marlowe understood what she was doing as did Kendall but that did not mean they were immune. At a few points in the movie it appears that the whole company were lulled into a false sense of security.
Althea Gibson was a former Wimbledon and U.S. National tennis champion when she was cast in the role of Lukey. Lukey’s dialogue was originally written in what they then called “Negro” dialect that Gibson found offensive. Anywho, Ford who generally hated actor’s demands relented and let the words be modified.
Despite appearing completed, The Horse Soldiers is actually an unfinished film. Veteran stuntman Fred Kennedy suffered a broken neck and died causing Ford to basically loose interest. Continual arguments with Holden and Wayne being distracted by the logistics of The Alamo most likely did not help either. What we got was Marlowe heading off towards his destination with Kendall and Hannah staying behind with the wounded.
This film is a bit of a slow burn as movies go. It’s more about the journey and avoiding conflict. It focuses on the characters and them coming to an understanding of how to work together as well as on some level or another working through their own baggage. Marlowe realized that Kendall is not incompetent. Kendall understands that Marlowe is not just some jerk, but rather a complex man who’s more interested in peace and concerned about the safety of his men by preparing them for the tough times should they ever occur. And Hannah knows that the people from the North that she thought were murderers and thieves are not quite as she originally believed.
I think upon my rewatch of The Horse Soldiers, I found myself liking it more than I originally did. It’s wittier and meatier than I recall with fine performances all around. Wayne fans and general movie goers will find plenty to enjoy.