Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Director: John Ford                                          Writers: John Lee Mahin & Martin Rackin
Film Score: David Buttolph                              Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Starring: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers and Judson Pratt

The Horse Soldiers is a Civil War story about the siege of Vicksburg, based in part on the novel of the same name by Harold Sinclair. In April of 1863 a Colonel Benjamin Grierson led 1700 Union cavalry troops from Tennessee down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The goal was a small town called Newton’s Station in Mississippi, a railroad hub that was feeding supplies to Vicksburg and had allowed them to hold out despite a Union siege on the town. The raid was intended to destroy the hub and stop supplies from getting into Vicksburg, and it did just that. But rather than attempt to go back through the enemy territory he had just come through, Grierson decided to continue to head south in the hopes of avoiding as much confrontation with the enemy as possible. Other than that, however, very little of the story in the film is based on true events or people. By all accounts the shoot was a difficult one, with William Holden and director John Ford arguing most of the time, and John Wayne looking ahead to his own production of The Alamo coming up. The end result shows it, and the film is not one of the best for either Ford or Wayne.

The film begins with Union cavalry colonel John Wayne being asked by Stan Jones as General Grant, to break the stalemate at Vicksburg by cutting off their supply lines. Even if the raid succeeds it would put Wayne and his short brigade three hundred miles behind enemy lines. But Jones is desperate for a victory and okay’s the mission. Unbeknownst to Wayne, however, he’s also been assigned an army doctor, William Holden, and the two butt heads immediately, with Wayne wanting to leave behind the wounded and Holden wanting the opposite. Even before they leave, Holden culls a few men off the roster that he believes won’t make it all the way. When Holden stops to help a slave family deliver a baby, Wayne puts him under officer’s arrest and orders him to confine his work to the soldiers. Along the way they stop at a plantation house, vacant except for the woman of the house, Constance Towers, and her slave Althea Gibson. But when the two women turn spy, Wayne has no choice but to take them along with them on the trip so they don’t give away their battle plans. Of course she hates the Yankees and tries to foil their plans at every opportunity, which in turn annoys Wayne and delights Holden. In fact, Holden seems to take a liking to Miss Towers and becomes her constant companion, even if it’s against her will.

While the principal actors do nothing wrong, there is a real sense that they are going through the motions. John Wayne, especially, has absolutely no subtlety to his performance at all. Constance Towers is probably the best of the bunch and her role, while stock from the perspective of gaining a new respect for her captors, mercifully avoids being a cliché. But the rest of the screenplay is disappointing in the extreme. There is no conflict between Wayne and Holden over Towers, which makes no sense. Wayne simply spends the whole film hating all doctors, until the obligatory explanation he makes to Towers. Wayne’s cinematic morality even seems like a pain in the ass to him during the film. One of the interesting elements of the picture is the presence of the great tennis star Althea Gibson as the slave woman Lukey. The original screenplay had her lines written in slave dialect, which Gibson absolutely refused to do. Fortunately, John Ford allowed her to speak her lines in proper English rather than replace her. By this time John Ford was a grizzled veteran of westerns. Everything, from camera angles to exterior scenery was no accident. He does some nice work but even he can’t save a weak script. Composer David Buttolph wasn’t particularly known for westerns, but he certainly knows his way around the genre, even composing the kind of vocal numbers that Ford liked in his films. The Horse Soldiers has some interesting moments, particularly the battle scenes, but ultimately it is simply too predictable and too pat to even be called a good film. Other than the stars, there’s not a lot here.

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