Arguably no film director photographed men and horses better than John Ford.Already the master of action Westerns such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, Ford and his favorite horseman, John Wayne,combined their considerable cinematic talents to bring one of the Civil War’s most audacious cavalry raids to the screen in The Horse Soldiers.
Although the film is based on a novel by Harold Sinclair,the story line closely follows the raid led by Union Colonel Benjamin H.Grierson.On April 17, 1863, Grierson led a brigade of 1,700 cavalrymen south from La Grange,Tenn., just above the Mississippi border,deep into the heart of the Confederacy. Sixteen days, 600 miles and a number of skirmishes later, the 6th and 7th Illinois Cavalry entered Baton Rouge, La., in triumph after destroying supplies, bridges, rolling stock and miles of railroad track.
Grierson’s sortie behind enemy lines not only destroyed critical war materiel but confused Confederate commanders and occupied troops desperately needed by Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, defending Vicksburg,Miss.,against the onslaught of Union Lt. Gen.Ulysses S.Grant. The diversion was Grant’s idea, and he later praised Grierson for contributing to the success of his campaign against the Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River.The movie’s dramatic tension is set up between Wayne’s character, Union Colonel John Marlowe, who leads the cavalry column, and William Holden, who plays Dr. Henry Kendall,the surgeon assigned to accompany the troop on the raid. Marlowe is a no-nonsense former railroad builder driven to complete the mission successfully. He clashes repeatedly with the humanistic Dr. Kendall, who never misses an opportunity to point out the absurdity of healing men so they can be put in harm’s way again.Colonel Grierson was a former music teacher and bandmaster; hardly an appropriate back story for a John Wayne character. The scenes between the two leading men convey the grudging respect each finds for the other as the raid progresses.
The Marlowe-Kendall relationship is further complicated by the arrival of the Hollywood-prescribed female romantic interest,played with an overdose of Southern charm by Constance Towers.As Hannah Hunter,the mistress of Greenbrier plantation,she listens through a furnace pipe as Marlowe explains the column’s objective and route to his staff.Discovered by Dr.Kendall,she must accompany the troopers for the duration lest she divulge what she knows to nearby Confederate forces. She is accompanied by the requisite loyal house servant, played with fawning obsequiousness by African-American tennis champion Althea Gibson.
The Horse Soldiers doesn’t lack for action or authenticity,although it is not considered one of Ford’s best pictures. It was filmed in color on location in Louisiana, so live oaks and cypress swamps replaced red rocks and sagebrush.William Clothier’s photography is outstanding and helps the film delve beneath simplistic notions of heroism to reveal something more complicated, grisly and real.
Ford never liked the script,but it remains faithful to the Grierson raid in many aspects. In both the movie and the actual raid,the railroad yards at Newton Station,Miss.,was the objective.In one of the movie’s best action scenes,the Union raiders fight off a hastily organized band of Confederates arriving on an inbound train.While Major Kendall and a local doctor care for the wounded of both sides,Union troopers systematically set fire to rolling stock and make “Sherman bowties” of the rails. Ford accurately depicts many other details of the raid, including having the advance scouts wear civilian clothing so they would blend in with the local citizenry. Grierson’s scouts risked being tried as spies if they were captured.
The film ends with Marlowe setting explosive charges on a bridge and fleeing before the advancing Confederates, now hot on his trail. Kendall remains behind in a slave cabin, where he has just delivered a baby, to once again care for wounded troops. He is ably assisted by the battle-tested Miss Hunter,who looks longingly after the column as it rides away,full of unrequited feelings of tenderness for the Yankee she once reviled.
Grierson actually suffered very few casualties and did little fighting during his sojourn through the South. The film also includes a fictitious encounter with a corps of children attending a local military academy, and the Union cavalry troops are mistakenly equipped with Springfield “Trapdoor”carbines, a weapon not introduced until 1873. Ford provides roles for some of his mainstay character actors, including mellow-voiced Ken Curtis as Corporal Wilkie and Hank Worden as the itinerant Deacon Clump, who leads the column through a swamp to evade pursuing Confederates. Willis Bouchey plays the vainglorious Colonel Phil Secord,who hopes to parlay his role in the raid into political office.Grierson had a similar glory-hunting subordinate officer with him, Colonel Edward Hatch of the 2nd Iowa. Hatch and his regiment were split off from the main column to further confuse the Confederates, an incident Ford depicts in the film.
John Ford’s stirring rendition of determined men riding hard into harm’s way makes The Horse Soldiers an excellent action-adventure film—almost as exciting as the events it documents.
Originally published in the November 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.