Though considered to be one of John Ford-John Wayne’s weakest collaborations, the Civil War Western “The Horse Soldiers,” set in April of 1863, offers several merits. Chief among those are some visual images, such as the march of the Military Academy’s youngsters against the Union forces.
The Civil War has been going badly for the Union. The key stumbling block is Vicksburg over the Mississippi River. Ulysses S. Grant has been sitting in front of Vicksburg for a year, but if he doesn’t take it before summer, he’ll be there for another year. If he does take it, then General Sherman can march to the sea and cut the Confederacy into twoand the War would be won by the Union
Grant calls Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne), a former railroad worker, and dispatches him 300 miles into enemy territory. Marlowe is assigned to lead a mission into Confederate land to destroy the enemy’s line of railroad communication through Newton Station.
In this saga, the ideological conflict is between the military and the medical professions: Marlowe clashes with Major Hank Kendall (William Holden), the medical officer assigned to his unit. Marlowe is concerned about losing valuable time, while Kendall demands to give good care to the wounded soldiers. Early on, Marlow suspects that, like all doctors, Kendall may be more concerned with narrowly-defined professional conduct and his personal reputation than with the military strategies and the fight’s success.
Marlow is described as “Old Ironhead,” but he’s actually a gentler and softer soul than given credit to. This becomes clear in the gentlemanly gallantry he displays toward Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers), a Southern lady whose house is taken over.
Caught spying on an officers’ meeting, Hanna is taken by Wayne to prevent the risk of her revealing crucial plans. She, of course, resents being watched and given orders, and at one point expresses her anger physically by taking a sock at Marlowe. What weakens the scene dramatically is the narrative clich of turning Wayne’s Marlowe drunk before he can confess about the sorrows of his marriage and bitterness over loss of his wife.
As an officer, Marlowe sees the good and bad sides of war. Claiming at the Newton Station battle, “I didn’t want this. I tried to avoid a fight,” as his men attack the advancing Confederate troops.
Abiding by a strict sense of honor and duty, Marlowe treats with contempt and hits two cooperative Confederate deserters (a deserter is a deserted, no matter what his politics are).
In the course of the yarn, we learn the source of Marlowe’s hostility toward Kendall: Two doctors operated on his wife for a suspected (but non-existent) tumor. She died in his arms, while he was forced to put a leather strap on her mouth to stop her excruciating pain and unbearable screaming.
Difference of opinion soon translate into a fist fight (poorly staged) between Marlowe and Kendall, begun by the former flinging water into the latter’s face, but the two need to overcome their conflict due to an enemy attack.
It’s only a matter of time before Marlowe gets woundedhe’s shot in the leg–and needs treatment from Kendall, though he continues to give orders in the operating room. Meanwhile, Hannah, also present during the operation, warms up toward her captor, and the scene in which she removes his heavy boot might be seen as a symbolic gesture of softening of the heart of Marlowe’s otherwise rough man.
Kendall proves his real mettle when he decides to stay behind with the wounded in dangerous Confederate territory, thus risking imprisonment in the famed Andersonville jail.
A series of gentlemanly farewells follow. First, there’s the cordial parting with a handshake between Marlowe and Kendall, accompanied by the exchange of bon mots. “So long, croaker,” says Marlowe, to which Kendall responds with “So long, sectionhand.”
Then there’s need to show warmth and affection for Hannah, what with Marlowe’s removing his hat, and then apologizing for the hardships he had put her through, while she clings to him for protection. Never the man to declare love openly, ” Wayne’s Marlowe, like his protags in “Rio Bravo” and “North to Alaska,” says, “It so happens that I’m in love with you,” taking Hanna’s headscarf as a romantic souvenir.
Ford shamelessly repeats himself and uses the “Ann Rutledge” theme from “Young Mr. Lincoln” (with Fonda) to achieve the nostalgic and bittersweet tones, as Marlow rides off into the sunset while Hanna looks at him from a distance.
Released: June 12, 1959
Running time: 119 minutes
Produced by John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin.
Directed by John Ford.
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin, based on the novel by Harold Sinclair.
Camera: William H. Clothier.
Editing: Jack Murray.
Art Direction: Frank Hotaling.
Music: David Buttolph.