#69 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
A Civil War film where the history of the Civil War is all just jumbled together into a pastiche of life in the South while an unconvincing love affair bubbles up between a Union officer and Confederate woman, an oddly built feud between two Union officers breaks out, and the movie just kind of stops because an on set accident let to a death that sapped the director’s enthusiasm for the project and he never filmed the ending, The Horse Soldiers is John Ford phoning the effort in. Talked into embracing sobriety by his doctor for his health, Ford seems to have been off his game here, never quite finding the right footing for the cavalry story.
It’s the Western Theater of the war and General Grant is setting up his siege of Vicksburg. In order to help ensure his position, he orders Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) to head south towards Newton Station, Mississippi, the Confederacy’s main train station for supplies to Vicksburg, to destroy any contraband as well as the railroad itself. The mission requires secrecy and guts, heading hundreds of miles into enemy territory, and Marlowe is the man to do it. Before he sets out, he’s assigned a new officer, Major Henry Kendall (William Holden), a surgeon who refuses to carry a gun. There’s antipathy between the two men from the moment Kendall shows up in camp, but Marlowe follows his orders and takes him along.
In Mississippi, the column soon comes across an isolated country home, Greenbriar, where Hanna Hunter (Constance Towers) and her servant slave Lukey (Althea Gibson) are waiting out the war. After some feigned hospitality, Kendall notes that Hunter is spying on Marlowe’s officer meeting, hearing their plan to head straight through past Newton Station once it’s sacked to Baton Rouge. Feeling like there’s no choice, Marlowe decides to take Hanna and Lukey along so they won’t give up the column’s position, mission, or destination. So begins the ineffective romance between Marlow and Hanna that starts as a meet cute and never really moves past. She becomes slightly enamored of him because of his…well, it’s not entirely clear why. He’s a hard man, a dedicated Northerner, a man bred from a lower class (he’s a train engineer without a formal education), but he does have a certain sense of honor that she finds attractive, I suppose, most notably when the column comes across a pair of Confederate deserters who have taken the local sheriff hostage. Marlowe gets some information from the deserters before knocking them out and handing them off to the sheriff with a tip of the hat.
There are two great moments in this film, and the first comes in Newton Station. They arrive in the little town with the people, mostly women, screaming at them to go home, and Marlowe figures out that the local Confederate colonel has set up a trap with an approaching train engine that’s filled with Confederate troops. The battle that erupts is a slaughter and so poorly thought out from a military point of view that it’s a wonder anyone thought it would be a good idea to include in the film (this isn’t the great part, it’s coming). Then the troops get to work on destroying the railroad, and it’s just great to see the mechanics of what it means to tear up a railroad up to and including the creation of Sherman’s neckties by wrapping the weakened iron railings around telegraph poles.
And then Wayne gives an impassioned speech about how much he hates doctors, and it’s one of the oddest moments of the film. It feels like an idea made up on set rather than planned out. Marlowe hates doctors because some years ago two doctors convinced his wife that she had a tumor. They operated on her, they found nothing, and she died. To have this speech come up more than halfway through the film feels off, especially when this was the war where doctors were hacking off limbs with unclean equipment all the time. A speech about how doctors had lost him many good men during the fighting would have fit so much better. It would have applied to the situation at hand much more intimately, and operated as a direct challenge to Kendall who was in the same job. The use of a long-dead wife just feels random and off.
Anyway, the column moves on, and we get our second great moment of the film. Desperate for men (the scene ends up feeling like it should have taken place in late 1864 instead of early 1863, but whatever) a Confederate soldier shows up at the Jefferson Military School and begs for the headmaster to lead his students into battle against the Union cavalry that terrorized Newton Station. The old man, a reverend, organizing his boys of between 9 and 16 years old, into columns and leading them off to fight the dying cause (again…this fits better with a later in the war story, along with all the references to Andersonville that didn’t open until 1864) while a widow begs him to let her have her only son left stay home is remarkably powerful. This could operate as a short film on its own, and it’s great.
And then the students find the column, open fire, and Marlow refuses to fire on children while the movie ends up kind of treating the whole thing like a kind of joke.
The finale of the film is around a random bridge somewhere in Mississippi where Marlowe needs to fight off an approaching Confederate skirmishing force while another Confederate force comes upon them from another direction. It’s not much of an action scene, doesn’t seem to have much in terms of stakes, and doesn’t really satisfy all that well. The actual ending of the film was apparently never shot because of the death of the stuntman during the filming of some action, and the movie simply stops with the Confederate column coming upon Kendall, who stayed behind to take care of the wounded.
This movie is kind of a mess, but there is some entertainment to be had. I find John Wayne watchable in just about anything he does, and since he’s front and center for most of the film, he’s an asset. Most of the looks at Confederate life carry a tinge of melancholy at their losing side that I appreciate. That bit with the boys leaving the military school is honestly outright beautiful in the anguish from the widowed mother. However, the story as a whole feels a bit random, the two major action sequences are lackluster, the romance simply doesn’t work, and the professional rivalry between the two main male characters ends up feeling like something from a satire rather than a straight war picture.
I don’t hate it, but this isn’t exactly one of Ford’s or Wayne’s best efforts.