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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Blu-ray. The Horse Soldiers


“The Horse Soldiers” (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: John Ford, 1959 (MGM/20th Century Fox)

John Ford, America’s greatest director of Western movies — and maybe our greatest director, period — was also an aficionado of Civil War history. Yet Ford’s actual films about the Civil War and its human figures were few and far between.

There was The Prisoner of Shark Island (1935), which is about Dr. Samuel Mudd and the events following Lincoln’s assassination. There was the lyrical masterpiece Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), with Henry Fonda as the young Lincoln. There was The Civil War (1962), Ford’s central episode of the 1962 Cinerama epic, How the West Was Won, narrated by Spencer Tracy: a little cinematic poem about the tragedies of war.

And there’s also The Horse Soldiers (1959), an exciting and very entertaining — but now somewhat neglected — movie inspired by an actual historical incident: a Northern raid deep into Southern territory at Newton Island, near New Orleans. The Newton Island Raid comes from a true story (from Harold Sinclair’s novel) that Ford and the producer-screenwriters, longtime MGM ace John Lee Mahin (Red Dust, Mogambo) and Martin Rackin (North to Alaska) — turned into a vehicle for John Wayne and William Holden, with Wayne playing the raid’s often ornery commander, Colonel John Marlowe, and Holden as Marlowe’s gadfly, the company’s hot-tempered doctor, Major Henry Kendall.

The movie begins with a classic Fordian image: a line of cavalry officers on horseback, the riders silhouetted against the sky. And we hear classic Fordian music: a male chorus singing a war song whose chorus boasts of riding “To Hell! And! Back! For Ulysses Simpson Grant.“ (The song, “I left My Love,“ was written by Western balladeer Stan Jones, who also plays Grant in the movie.)

There’s also a classic Fordian repertory ensemble backing up the two superstars Wayne and Holden, who, in 1959, were both at the peak of their box office popularity, only a few years past The Searchers and The Bridge on the River Kwai. The rest of the cast includes lots of familiar Ford faces: Willis Bouchey (the man who said “Nothing‘s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!”) as a pompous windbag would-be politician; Ken Curtis, Hank Worden (Old Mose of The Searchers), silent cowboy movie star Hoot Gibson and others as members of the Union raiding company; and Denver Pyle and Strother Martin as two peckerwoods who get on the wrong side of Col. Marlowe.

The movie’s love interest is that tough elegant blonde leading lady Constance Towers, who had only a brief movie star reign, but did right by both Ford (Sergeant Rutledge) and Sam Fuller (The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor). Here, she plays determined Southern belle Hannah Hunter, whom the troupe has to “kidnap” and take along as a prisoner, to keep her from informing the Rebels. There’s even a piece of stunt celebrity casting: tennis champion Althea Gibson as Hannah’s faithful maidservant, Lukey.

Those of us who fought the John Ford wars in our youth, sometimes tended to underrate middle period Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, The Fugitive), and overrate late Ford (The Long Gray Line, Two Rode Together). But any Ford film from his vast filmography usually has strong points and The Horse Soldiers is a fine movie (if occasionally a schmaltzy one). Shot in misty colors by the excellent craftsman Bill Clothier (who put the blacks and whites into Liberty Valance), The Horse Soldiers strikes a deft balance between action scenes and dramatic ones, and the entire movie has that lusty, picaresque, full-bodied, this-is-the-way-it-was feel that the best Ford always hits. This isn’t quite the best Ford, but I enjoyed every minute of it, after not seeing it for decades.

Co-writer John Lee Mahin was one of MGM’s most reliable and most macho writers (he was a Gable specialist), and he and Rackin give Wayne and Holden plenty of shouting room and even a fistfight or two. (Wayne is a tough soldier who used to be a railroad worker, Holden is an idealistic sawbones, and they like to call each other “Section hand“ and “Croaker,“ particularly when they want to tick each other off.)

The film’s ostensible romance is between Wayne and Towers, but that’s mostly under the surface. When Marshall/Wayne cries “I love you!” to Towers and rides away at the film‘s end, it’s almost a surprise. (I could have done without it, and I’ll bet Ford could have too.) It’s good to see Ford savaging Bouchey’s opportunistic politician, who wants to wring votes for himself out of every battle — and who may be a stand-in for all the pompous producers Ford ever had. It’s also touching to see that last, understated Wayne-Holden goodbye with the Rebels advancing, shot in the perfect medium distance, where Wayne and Holden shake hands, and Wayne says “So long, Croaker” and Holden says “Take care, Section hand.” Nobody can do a scene like that as well as Ford, though plenty try.

Almost everybody agrees that there’s at least one great scene in The Horse Soldiers: and that’s the last-ditch, largely symbolic battle between Marshall/Wayne’s troops and the only fighting men left in a deserted southern town — a company of little boy cadets from the Jefferson Military Academy, who look about twelve and under, led by the school’s elderly Reverend (Basil Ruysdael), in a battle that Wayne has no desire to fight and skedaddles away from as fast as he can. The military school scene swings expertly between comedy and pathos, drama and action — most of the sequence following the boy soldiers and their minister/commander as they march down a sidewalk and up to the hills, going to war in their crisp clean uniforms, advancing on the Union “stronghold,“ with all the military bearing twelve-year-olds and a 72-year-old can muster.

As they march along the town sidewalk, one mother runs up to the commander and desperately petitions him to excuse her son from battle, since he’s the last son from a family that has sacrificed all his brothers to the cause. Still marching and staring straight ahead, the bespectacled Reverend excuses the drummer boy, who begins to cry and yell as his mother plucks him from the ranks and drags him away — but then escapes out a back window to rejoin the troop.

When Wayne and Holden’s Union horse soldiers site the “enemy” and beat their hasty retreat, the victorious young soldiers get their moment of glory, bursting into boyish hurrahs — all except the drummer boy who got caught behind the lines and is being spanked by a Yank. It’s a great scene all right. And you could tell it was John Ford who directed it after only a few minutes and a handful of shots. No extras.

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