A lesser John Ford is still an upper tier Western on anyone else’s filmography. It’s an odd choice really to give this film the Blu-ray treatment when there are currently so few Ford films available in glorious High Definition.
The Horse Soldiers (1959) dir. John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers
By Alan Bacchus
This Civil War epic is as big a film as Ford has ever made, a rousing adventure wherein John Wayne plays a Union Colonel commanding his cavalry troop deep into Southern territory to capture and destroy a Confederate railway station. It’s a classic men-on-a-mission set up, but as executed by John Ford, the film moves through all the high and lows of the dramatic cinema, the light and affable to the bloody tragic and deadly serious.
The key conflict in the film comes from William Holden’s character, a physician assigned to the troop. Due to a deep-rooted hatred, Wayne’s character, Marlowe, resents the presence of the peaceful doctor, who prefers to save lives then destroy them. Of course, the arc of the story ensures that by the end the two men would eventually find common ground and mutual respect for each other’s professions.
The superstar pairing of Holden and Wayne is not lost on us. Wayne is Wayne, the grizzled and stubborn leader, but also a man of honour and pride. Wayne exercises his thespian muscles in a dramatic drunken confession scene when he tells the story of his dying wife who received ill advised brain surgery. It’s a dramatic moment of painful reflection we don’t often see from the big man. Holden, as the equally confident surgeon, conflicts with Wayne’s military mentality and fight-to-win attitude. Holden’s easy-going congenial nature perfectly represents the humanism of the character and the historical resonant qualities of the picture as a whole.
As usual there’s not much female representation, but Constance Towers holds court admirably against the star heavies as the Confederate tag-along gal who at first tries to subvert the actions of Marlowe but then comes to side with the motivations of the Union men.
It’s not all shits and giggles here though. The often obscene tragedy of the brutal violence of the Civil War is given deserved attention. At one point as the Union approaches their destination, the Confederates use a troop of boys to defend Marlowe’s army.
Ford fans will marvel at the brilliant widescreen colour cinematography. We’re also treated to the familiar Fordisms, which earns The Horse Soldiers the distinction of being 'a John Ford film’. There are plenty of awesome, perfectly composed wide-angle shots of the cavalry moving elegantly through the landscape. There is also plenty of action, including a raucous gun fight in the town of Vicksburg. And when required, Ford lays on the frontier sentimentality, which allows even the most hardened of male filmgoers to shed a tear without guilt.
The Horse Soldiers is available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment.