Judge Ike Oden rattles his saber for no man.
"With all due respect, ma'am, I'm gonna get the hell out of here."
In 1959, John Ford, John Wayne (Big Jake), and William Holden (The Wild Bunch) united to create Horse Soldiers, a Civil War film based on the true story of Col. Ben Grierson's tide-turning Union raids. The trio took the tale and added enough romanticism, action and comedy to make a film that transcends genre and conventions. Yet despite its greatness, Horse Soldiers ranks for most as a minor entry in the long line of Ford/Wayne collaborations. It arrives on Blu-ray deserving more respect than it gets.
Facts of the Case
The Civil War rages. The Union suffers. Desperate for a last shot at victory, Col. Marlow (Wayne) and his regiment are tasked with infiltrating and raiding Johnny Reb's greatest strongholds. As he leads his soldiers from Tennessee through Mississippi and Louisiana, Marlow contends with Kendall (Holden), a self-righteous Surgeon, and Hannah (Constance Towers, A Perfect Murder), a Southern Belle turned Confederate spy.
The Horse Soldiers tight rope walks comedy, action, drama, and character study beautifully, a larger-than-life movie that made Wayne and Ford's partnership a name brand. Chock full of honest performances, impressively large-scale action, catchy music and painterly cinematography, Horse Soldiers plays out to near perfection in classic Ford style. So why does the film seem to get lost in the Duke/Ford shuffle?
I suspect much of the fault lies in the film's genre. Horse Soldiers represents Ford's only Civil War film (barring a sequence in How The West Was Won). As such, the film and its politics exist outside the vacuum sealed outlaw setting of the Old West. The film casts issues of race, servitude civil conflict, and war with a light touch that rankle feathers in 1959 and 2011 alike.
Soldiers agrees slavery is wrong and all men should be free, but puts it in a context that's sympathetic to all parties, a choice that never really works. Among the most prominent subplots is a bond between Hannah and Lukey (Althea Gibson, The Player) during their excursion with the titular soldiers that blurs traditional line between master and owner. Ford certainly idealizes the relationship between Hannah and Lukey, but it never feels saccharine or overbearing. Soldiers admonishes the Confederacy for their attempt to defend slavery, but shows their cause in the context of a dying economy that the Northern Union continues to starve, making the issue far from one-sided.
Though complex, this quasi-sympathetic look at slavery is racially condescending. Most John Wayne films are, but the context of the Civil War setting has parallels to the issues of the then-emerging Civil Rights Movement. Though their intentions are good, the setting of Horse Soldiers makes Ford's perception of racism and slavery objectively and painfully white, making for a squeamish, dated mentality that's hard to give a free pass in 2011 (or 1959, apparently).
Ford approaches the concepts of war and patriotism with a much defter hand, resulting in surprisingly effective subversion for a film of this era. Ford pumps Soldiers with surface level ra-ra patriotism that slowly peels back to show the layers chaos lurking beneath black and white issues of the Civil War. The film begins and we're more than ready to see John Wayne kick some Confederate ass. As it continues onward, however, Ford crafts Horse Soldiers into a genuine meditation on our nation torn asunder. Sure, the film plays fast and loose with history, but don't let creative license take away from the emotional honesty of the film, which rivals The Searchers in terms of resonance.
Every action scene is stunningly filmed and designed to subvert the slam-bang expectations of the audience. No greater sequence of the film exemplifies this than the Newton Station conflict, which begins as a rollicking battle before giving way to a tragic industrial dismantling of millions of dollars of human resources. Ford also uses comedy as a weapon in his arsenal, offering up a seriocomic assault on Marlow's unit by an army of Confederate youth. The poetic sequence sums up the absurdity of Civil War while imposing a genuine, albeit unlikely threat on our heroes.
Soldiers rejects the notion of a purely moralist Civil War. Ford wisely establishes the pacifist Kendall as the film's most sympathetic character. From the beginning of the film Marlowe admonishes Kendall for not carrying his regulated arms, a trait the pacifist carries throughout the film. It's worth noting that, aside from Hannah, who stays out of direct conflict, Kendall strides through the film as the only character never shot. He does throw down in a brawl with Marlow, the consequences of which distracts our heroes from the Confederate youth ambush. As penance, men are shot, injured, and killed in the battle, deaths that loom over the hotheads of Marlow and Kendall, respectively.
Horse Soldiers umbrage toward the notion of a civil war, violence, and acts of attrition make for an atypical John Wayne film. Fans rejected it upon release, though most of the Ford/Wayne hallmarks are readily apparent—the film's rip-roaring patriotism and men-on-a-mission antics are genuine and satisfying. Viewers invest in the film to see Marlow, Kendall and the gang fight through their suicide mission and end the war for good. Marlow's approach to violence is mournful, a means to an end that makes it all the more engaging during the big battle scenes. A blurb on the back of the box calls the film a "Saber rattling good time" and though I have a low tolerance for horrible blurbs, I totally agree.
Audiences, however, did not. The film was something of a bomb and has faded in obscurity because of it. MGM hasn't forgotten the failure, apparently. Horse Soldiers has long languished in the land of non-anamorphic DVD, making the upgrade to 1080p a very big leap from what fans were forced to settle with. Still, given the kind of restorations we've seen on films like The Searchers, the transfer has enough digital noise and scratches to constitute a lackluster showing. The colors look very natural and edge enhancement is minimal, so I'd call it about average when held up against most Wayne Blu-rays. The DTS-HD mono track is crystal clear. There are no bells or whistles in the mix but the film doesn't really call for any. Extras are nil except for a trailer.
I'll be yellow-bellied turncoat if I didn't say Horse Soldiers holds up as one of the most remarkable and complex films Ford, Wayne, or Holden would ever work on. Most cinephiles don't hold it on the same level as Liberty Valance, Stagecoach or (can I name drop this more?) The Searchers, but the film deserves the same sort of re-appraisal those films have garnered through the years. No matter what good or bad politics are on display, Horse Soldiers masterfully ranks among Pappy Ford's finest work behind a camera. MGM's Blu-ray leaves much to be desired, but given the film's history on home video it will have to do.
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