Dir: John Ford - Cast: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers, Althea Gibson, Hoot Gibson, Stan Jones, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Ken Curtis
According to Philip French, the lion's share of the best Civil War pictures are situated in the margin of the historic event, directing viewers away from the divisive central issues of the conflict (1). They either use the Civil War as a backdrop or focus on a small group of characters, soldiers and/or civilians, whose lives are affected by the hostilities. John Ford's The Horse Soldiers is a good example of such a 'small-scale' Civil War movie: it focuses on three characters who are saddled which each other during a brief but decisive period.
The movie is based on a little-known historic event, a suicidal mission, led by Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson, on the eve of the Battle of Vicksburg. Grierson was sent by General Grant across the Mississippi into Confederate territory, to destroy the railroad line to Vicksburg. In the movie, Grierson has become Marlowe, in normal life a railway engineer, and the troops are joined by an army doctor, Major Henry Kendall, who has his own specific ideas about the war. Marlowe and Kendall soon develop a strong disliking for each other. Things are further complicated when the regiment makes a stop at a southern plantation and Marlowe is forced to take the mistress and her slave with him, after the two women have been eavesdropping on a staff meeting and have learned about their plans.
In Ford's vast body of work, The Horse Soldiers is a bit of an overlooked (and underrated) movie. Its visual qualities have been widely praised, but it has also been labeled as structurally rambling. Admittedly the film has its liabilities; yes, it is rambling and it's also a little overlong. William Clothier's cinematography of riders silhouetted against the sky or young Confederate recruits marching off to the battle field, is magnificent, often breathtaking, but the long shots also slow the movie down, leading to a certain languor in the proceedings. But the story is strong, offering a bleak image of the war, and the uneasy, triangular relationship between Marlowe, Kendall and Southern belle Miss Turner is well-handled. Constance Towers may look a little flaccid compared to Maureen O'Hara - who had been paired with John Wayne on various occasions in the mid-fifties - but The Horse Soldiers is not filmed in the fervid, sparkling style of The Quiet Man, it's a dark, somber movie, and the 'impossible' love story is told with restraint. As a lady Miss Turner has more affinity with the civilized, disciplined surgeon, but as a woman she's attracted to the strong commander, who's confused by his own feelings for her.
In 1959 John Wayne was 52 and the film Ford and he had made two years earlier, The Wings of Eagles, a failed attempt to revive the winning formula of The Quiet Man (2), had told both men that it was time to move on. The Marlowe character from The Horse Soldiers is a more introvert type, with some of the stern aspects of Ethan Edwards from The Searchers (1956). It transpires that before the war a surgeon has killed Marlowe's wife when he insisted on operating her when there was no medical reason for it. This is a rather blunt way of explaining Marlowe' grievances towards Kendall (or medical science in general), but this gruffness of the character suits the Duke fine as an actor and his robust manners make a fine contrast to Holden's almost laconic acting style.
One of the stuntmen, Fred Kennedy, was killed when he took a fall from a horse during the film's finale, the Battle of Vicksburg. Kennedy, who had worked with Ford before, was not in good shape but had begged Ford to give him a job as a stunt double because he needed the money. Ford was so shocked when the accident happened, that he stopped filming and closed the set. He later shot some additional scenes on another location (3).
(1) Philip French, Westerns, Aspects of a movie genre, p. 10
(2) Gary Wills, John Wayne's America, p. 262-263
(3) For the accident see: Fred Kennedy's Death (Scroll down to the bottom of the page)