8 April 2005 | barnabyrudge
Under-rated American Civil War movie.
General critical consensus seems to feel that John Ford's The Horse Soldiers is a bit of a let-down, at least by the dizzyingly high standards of the director. However, it's quite liberating if you try to forget that you're watching a John Ford movie and just treat it as an American Civil War movie like any other. Then, the film's qualities become more apparent. Yes, The Horse Soldiers is inferior to many of the other John Ford movies. But Ford working at half-speed is still better than most directors working at the peak of their powers. And The Horse Soldiers is still a fascinating, exciting and expertly told war film.
Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) is ordered by the Union generals to lead his army 300 miles into the Confederacy, where they are to sabotage and disrupt the vital railway supply town of Newton Station as much as possible. After a disastrous few months of lost battles and heavy casualties, the Union generals are determined to swing the battle back in their favour before the arrival of winter. Marlowe is unhappy to learn that his orders include allowing army surgeon Major Kendall (William Holden) along on the mission. Since the death of his wife at the hands of two blundering surgeons, Marlowe has had little respect for those in the medical profession. To further complicate matters, a feisty Southern belle, Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) with Confederate sympathies, overhears Marlowe informing his men that Newton Station is the target, and that once the town has been raided the Union forces plan to head for the safety of Baton Rouge. In order to secure her silence, Marlowe has to take her prisoner and suffer her sharp Southern tongue (plus escape attempts) during the trip.
The Horse Soldiers is filmed in loving detail, with gorgeous autumnal backdrops. Its story is very interesting, especially the volatile relationship between Wayne and Holden, and the mission itself provides excitements along the way. In particular, a street battle at Newton Station is memorable, as is a scene later in the film when the Union soldiers come under attack from an army of Confederate army cadets still at schoolboy age. Towers' character is written as a very cunning and feisty woman, who disguises her attributes by coming across as a melodramatic, gossipy airhead. Towers plays the part well, but because of how she's encouraged to handle the role she becomes rather irritating too. One disappointing moment in the film comes when Wayne and Holden reach breaking-point with each other and ride off to a secluded glade to slug it out. The sequence is set to be a real humdinger, but is curiously cut short by the arrival of the enemy forces. On the whole, though, The Horse Soldiers is a good, solid Civil War entertainment, well worth a look.