Though flawed, John Ford's The Horse Soldiers has a fair amount going for it: the well-oiled partnership of Ford and star John Wayne (and an assist from William Holden); Ford's vivid visual style; and large-scale action. Since Ford's desire to do a biopic about Ulysses S. Grant remained unfulfilled, The Horse Soldiers is the only feature-length film Ford made about the Civil War (Ford contributed a Civil War-themed chapter to How the West Was Won). Arguably the biggest strike against The Horse Soldiers, however, is its willingness to take liberties with history—by inventing a character where the real-life hero would've served nicely.
Ford's film—adapted from Harold Sinclair's novel The Horse Soldiers—takes as its basis Grierson's Raid (1863), the Battle of Newton's Station (1863), and the Battle of New Market (1864). Wayne plays the fictional Col. John Marlowe, who hatches a strategy to ride deep into Confederate territory and lay waste to the railroad around Newton's Station, Mississippi. Considered something of a suicide mission (even if they can succeed, they aren't expected to make it home), the plan is well suited to Marlowe, a former railroad engineer who gets extra drive from his bitterness. Newly arrived doctor Maj. Hank Kendall (William Holden) becomes the focus of Marlowe's ire: for reasons revealed deep into the film, Marlowe hates doctors. The running tension between the two could be read as a clash of the conservative warrior and the peaceful progressive, as one early conflict involves Kendall slowing Marlowe's progress by responding to a request to deliver an African-American child; Kendall's only interest is in healing, while Marlowe resists his own psychic healing to focus on grim duty.
The mission takes on a pesky complication when Marlowe finds he has no choice but to bring along Southern belle Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers), lest she reveal his cavalry brigade's plans and route. Romantically starved, Hunter makes eyes at both Kendall and Marlowe, and her Confederate resolve seems destined to melt. Ford finds plenty of opportunities for humor, but often at odd times or at the expense of the characters or the mood: there's Hannah's punny, blatantly flirtateous presentation of her cleavage ("Oh come now, Colonel, a man with a great big frame like yours can’t just nibble away like a little ole titmouse. Now, what was your preference, the leg or the breast?") and the fluffy treatment of a battery of Southern cadets marching into battle (Wayne orders his men to spank the captured), when historically the cadets were no joke. All this hooey made The Horse Soldiers a plucky mainstream entertainment of its time, but it hasn't aged so well.
For some reason, Ford brushed aside the historical Col. Ben Grierson, a fascinating figure, and predictably, the film soft-pedals the slave issue (as recompense, Ford casts African-American tennis star Althea Gibson as a noble maid). Still, the broad strokes of military strategy are accurate here, and Ford goes a step further than his contemporaries in depicting battlefield triage. And the friction between the leading characters (a template of sorts for the buddy action comedies to come) works better than one would expect, thanks to Wayne and Holden. Ford's conflicting impulses result in something of a pastepudding film, but one that's visually appealing and eminently watchable.
The Horse Soldiers comes to Blu-ray with a solid hi-def transfer that derives from a dated source. The image isn't entirely clean—dirt and scratches are evident—but on the other hand, it hasn't been digitally tampered with in the least. Film grain is a bit heavy, but certainly gives the image a natural look; colors are accurate and appealing; and detail and texture notably improve over standard definition. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack obviously sacrifices dynamism, but makes up for it in faithfulness and cleanliness: it's plenty clear and a relatively full-sounding mono presentation. The only bonus feature here is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:49, HD).
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