The Horse Soldiers
"And I didn't kill either one of them. I must have been crazy. Or too conventional." Thus concludes Colonel John Marlowe's heart wrenching confession. He's telling Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) why he currently hates doctors, two of whom once operated on his wife for a tumor, found nothing, and then left her to die in his arms. It's a sad, witty speech, and a long one, and John Wayne, the actor who gives it, wasn't one for long speeches. Yet it's one of the high points of this John Ford Civil War film from 1959. Widely considered an off-movie for Ford falling as it does between the sentimental political tale The Last Hurrah and the progressive trial film Sergeant Rutledge the episodic The Horse Soldiers actually is a good example of Fordian filmmaking, as well as being the last of his more-traditional westerns. The film may not reach the mythopoetic heights of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it remains an easy compendium of Ford's views on family, home, and the role of the North in the Civil War. A loose adaptation of Harold Sinclair's novel about Colonel Benjamin Grierson's 600 mile, 16-day guerrilla raid from Tennessee to Louisiana during the Vicksburg campaign in April of 1863, the film follows Marlowe as he harries an already-hurting South. He is assigned a surgeon, Major Hank Kendall (William Holden), with whom he instantly begins to feud, and drags Southern belle Hunter away from her plantation, for fear she will reveal his whereabouts. Naturally, they have a romance of sorts. The Horse Soldiers was something of a trial for Ford, coming as it did with a script he didn't like, a complex multi-corporation financial arrangement, and the death of his favorite stuntman on the set. At least one biographer has asserted that Ford was never the same after this film. Nevertheless, there are several famous set pieces in this tale (the raid on Newton Station; the routing of Marlowe's men by the charge of the children's army), and many new and old members of the Ford Traveling Players pop up, including Ken Curtis, Strother Martin, Denver Pyle, Hank Worden. But the high point of the film is Wayne's performance and his confessional speech it is a magnificent but little-acknowledged moment in a long and complex career. MGM's DVD release of The Horse Soldiers, part of its "Western Legends" series, should surprise new viewers as an unknown gem. It comes with a fair widescreen transfer (1.66:1), showing literal wear and tear, and audio is in Dolby Digital 1.0. For an extra, the disc offers the original trailer a scratchy and dirty strip of film, but still an entertaining artifact. Keep-case.