A Union Cavalry outfit is sent behind confederate lines in strength to destroy a rail/supply centre. Along with them is sent a doctor who causes instant antipathy between him and the commander. The secret plan for the mission is overheard by a southern belle who must be taken along to assure her silence. The Union officers each have different reasons for wanting to be on the mission. Based on the true story of Col. Benjamin H. Grierson.
John Wayne ... Col. John Marlowe
William Holden ... Maj. Henry \'Hank\' Kendall (regimental surgeon)
Constance Towers ... Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar
Judson Pratt ... Sgt. Maj. Kirby
Hoot Gibson ... Sgt. Brown
Ken Curtis ... Cpl. Wilkie
Willis Bouchey ... Col. Phil Secord
Bing Russell ... Dunker, Yankee Soldier Amputee
O.Z. Whitehead ... Otis \'Hoppy\' Hopkins (medical assistant)
Hank Worden ... Deacon Clump
Chuck Hayward ... Union captain
Denver Pyle ... Jackie Jo (rebel deserter)
Strother Martin ... Virgil (rebel deserter)
Basil Ruysdael ... The Reverend (Jefferson Military Academy)
Carleton Young ... Col. Jonathan Miles, CSA
John Ford probably did more to glorify the old American Cavalry of the 19th Century than any other major Hollywood Director. But while the Civil War is an element that keeps turning up in his movies, he never actually did do the Civil War film he wanted to do - a biography of the career of Ulysses Grant. In his career he tackled the Civil War three times.
In PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND he dealt with the story of Dr.Samuel Mudd, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for involvement in Lincoln\'s Assassination. In HOW THE WEST WAS WON, Ford did the segment dealing with the battle of \"SHILOH\", with Harry Morgan as General Grant and John Wayne as General Sherman. This film was the nearest that Ford ever got to his dream film. THE HORSE SOLDIERS was the only film that was devoted to a full study of the effect of the war in the South, on both Union and Rebel soldiers. While not, perhaps, the best that Ford could have achieved - he was in the twilight of his master career - it is a fine film none-the-less.
The story is based on an incident in 1863 known as Grierson\'s Raid. Cavalry leader Benjamin Grierson was sent by Grant into Alabama and Mississippi on a raid to attack a railway junction, supposedly to destroy it for strategic reasons. While it was important to knock the railway junction out of effective work, the real purpose was to tie up Confederate forces in these backwaters. Since December 1862 Grant was struggling to capture the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. But try as he did Grant kept losing to the Confederates under Joseph Johnston and John C. Pemberton (the commander in Vicksburg). But Grant had noticed how Confederate cavalry men like Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest had forced him to use men to protect his supply lines, and took valuable time away from him trying to fight off or track them down. He decided that Grierson, a first rate Cavalry leader, could do the same thing to Johnston. A very intelligent Confederate Commander, Johnston was nervous at unexpected difficulties. Grant reasoned that Grierson\'s men would panic Johnston, and cause him to waste time chasing him down.
As it turned out Grierson\'s Raid worked. The pinning down of large numbers of Rebel troops in Alabama and Missisippi was wonderful for Grant\'s Vicksburg campaign. It was the beginning of the successful conclusion of the campaign, as Johnston\'s attention was now split between trying to help support Pemberton and trying to reassure frightened southern populations in the hinterlands. Grierson got most of his men back to Northern lines. Vicksburg was able to hold out until July 4, 1863. It\'s fall (the day after Lee\'s defeat at Gettysburg) really marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War.
This incident is the basis for THE HORSE SOLDIERS. Ford concentrates on what the experience of the war must have been like in the Southern countryside. Certain things are taken from other incidents and battlefields. When a military school\'s cadets are brought into the field to try to catch or slow down John Wayne\'s men, Ford is really picking up on an incident in the war in Virginia, when the young cadets at the Virginia Military Institute came out to fight the Union troops under Sheridan in 1864. One can forgive the transition of the incident.
It has been pointed out that one of the characters, Colonel Secord (Willis Bouchey) is a splendid type - the political officer. Men like Secord (usually in the position of General) bedeviled both sides, because of their usually normal level of mediocrity or idiocy. A few rose to the job well - the best of the Northern political generals was \"Black Jack\" Logan, who would be a valuable associate of Sherman in the battles around Atlanta. But for every positive General Logan, there were thieves like Benjamin \"Spoons\" Butler, who feathered his nest as military governor of New Orleans (he supposedly stole even the silver spoons of the citizenry). Actually Secord is normally intelligent, and follows Wayne\'s strategy. But he is constantly looking ahead at post-war elections. Towards the end he even wonders if the White House beckons.
Another lovely moment shows the fraying of the Southern cause. Wayne and his men come across two Rebel deserters (Strother Martin and Denver Pyle) who have tied up the local sheriff (Russell Simpson). Wayne thanks Martin and Pyle for their unofficial assistance to the Northern cause,telling them which way they plan to go. While Martin chatters away (mentioning the strength of Rebel forces in the area), Wayne carefully knocks out Pyle and then Martin, and then unties Simpson and assists in tying up the two deserters. William Holden is watching this, and later asks why he helped Simpson. Wayne explains that he decided to feed the deserters false information about his own movements, as they would probably give the information to the Confederates later on anyway.
All the performances are fine, with Wayne in particular as a man who hates doctors and medicine for a valid personal reason. Holden is in a subordinate role but he gets some nice moments. So does Constance Towers, in a rare leading part, as a passionate Confederate supporter who gradually gets to like Wayne. Carleton Young, as a former friend of Wayne, has a moment trying to rally Confederate forces at the railway depot.
It is a good Ford film, and makes one wish that Ford had made his Ulysses Grant biography.
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.
John Wayne\'s been given a critical job to do by none other than General Ulysses S. Grant. He\'s been ordered to take 3 brigades deep into Confederate territory and destroy a critical rail supply station at a place called Newton\'s Station and then get his troops out the best way he can. He\'s ordered to take along, an army surgeon played by William Holden. Wayne\'s got what appears to be an unreasoning dislike of Holden and their rivalry professional and personal is what drives the plot of the Horse Soldiers.
John Ford always disparaged the films he made after Wings of Eagles, but in my opinion, The Horse Soldiers is one of his finest films. Also in my humble opinion he managed to get one of John Wayne\'s finest film performances. Wayne\'s a volunteer officer, in civilian life he rose from section hand on a railroad to an construction engineer. Holden calls him \"section hand\" as a term of derision after Wayne consistently refers to him as \"croker.\"
Wayne and Holden were very close personal friends and friendly rivals at the box office. That\'s part of the reason that The Horse Soldiers is so good, the chemistry between them. In fact when Wayne died in 1979, Holden was said to have gone on one legendary drinking binge. Who would have suspected we\'d have lost him as well two years later.
Holden as the doctor has a less flamboyant part than Wayne, but he makes the most of what he was given. I suspect knowing the relationship between Wayne and John Ford, he knew going in his part would be less, but he did it anyway.
Anyone who thinks John Wayne incapable of acting should see the scene in the saloon at Newton\'s Station after the Union forces repel a Confederate attack and are about their business destroying the railroad property. In a great drunk scene he reveals to Constance Towers the reason for his hatred of the medical profession. I won\'t reveal it, but it\'s something we can all understand. Wayne did this scene so well that Ford used an abbreviated version of it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Ford makes marvelous use of music in there, weaving traditional Civil War era songs with the song written by Stan Jones for the film, I Left My Love. That is one catchy and infectious ballad, one of the best things written for a John Ford movie. Incidentally Stan Jones makes a brief appearance in the film as Ulysses S. Grant and does well by him.
There are two in the supporting cast that deserve mention. During the Civil War Lincoln had to deal with volunteer political generals, most of whom were a flop. Willis Bouchey playing John Wayne\'s co-commander in the expedition captures the phenomenon to perfection. He\'s argumentative, arrogant, and a general pain in the butt to Wayne. It\'s probably Bouchey\'s finest screen performance.
And Carleton Young also gives what I think is his finest screen performance as the one armed Confederate colonel who tries in vain to stop Wayne from completing his plans. It\'s a role that requires dignity and strength and Carleton Young is marvelous. In fact the contrast between Bouchey and Young as soldiers is pretty obvious.
The relationship between the Section Hand and The Croker evolves during the running time of The Horse Soldiers. It\'s a relationship well worth seeing develop.
# John Ford suspended location filming in Louisiana after Fred Kennedy was killed performing a riding stunt. The film was later completed in California.
# The film marked the beginning of mega-deals for Hollywood stars. John Wayne and William Holden received $775,000 each, plus 20% of the overall profits, an unheard-of sum for that time. The final contract involved six companies and numbered twice the pages of the movie\'s script. The film, however, was a financial failure, with no profits to be shared in the end.
# The story is based on Grierson\'s Raid of April-May 1863.