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The Horse Soldiers(1959)
A Union Cavalry outfit is sent behind confederate lines in strength to destroy a rail/supply centre. Along with them is sent a doctor who causes instant antipathy between him and the commander. The secret plan for the mission is overheard by a southern belle who must be taken along to assure her silence. The Union officers each have different reasons for wanting to be on the mission.
For more about The Horse Soldiers and the The Horse Soldiers Blu-ray release, see the The Horse Soldiers Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on May 16, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Director: John Ford
Writers: John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin
Starring: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers, Judson Pratt, Hoot Gibson, Ken Curtis
» See full cast & crew
The Horse Soldiers Blu-ray Review
Ford and Wayne take on the Civil War.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, May 16, 2011
Falling roughly between The Searchers—arguably the best western ever made—and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the last truly great film of John Ford's prolific career, The Horse Soldiers is generally regarded as "lesser Ford." While this may be true, it should be remembered that even at his least inspired, John Ford made western and war movies—with occasional forays into other genres—that stood toe-to-toe with practically anything else Hollywood was putting out at the time. The Horse Soldiers, then, may not ride high in Ford's filmography—not for critics or film scholars, anyway—but it was commercially successful upon its 1959 release, and it's still a worthwhile entertainment, filled with explosive action sequences and bolstered by deliciously prickly performances from its two leads, William Holden and John Wayne, Ford's go-to hero.
Besides his contribution to the omnibus epic How the West Was Won, The Horse Soldiers also has the distinction of being the only John Ford feature explicitly about the Civil War. Adapted from Harold Sinclair's eponymous novel, the film is loosely based on the remarkable true story of a Union cavalry brigade that journeyed six hundred miles into Southern territory, sabotaging railroad tracks, blowing up bridges, and destroying Confederate storehouses along the way—all before making a nearly bloodless escape. John Wayne plays Colonel John Marlowe, a former railroad engineer who's been tasked with leading this dangerous raid behind enemy lines. Although he's not a cruel man, Marlowe is a total hardass, and his plan is to push his men to the limits, disrupt the Confederate supply lines, and then get the hell out. No dillydallying or pussyfooting around. Any wounded will be "left to the clemency of the enemy." Naturally, he gruffly receives the news that, per regulations, regimental surgeon Major Henry Kendall (William Holden) will be joining the expedition. Marlowe initially seems worried that Kendall will simply slow them down, but the real cause of his disdain eventually comes out—ever since his wife died of a botched surgery, Marlowe has distrusted doctors. Actually, distrust is a rather weak word. He hates doctors, and he loathes the idea of having one tailing him on this mission, telling him when—and for how long —the men need to rest and recuperate. They get off to a rough start when Kendall holds up the entire brigade in order to deliver a slave baby.
The story needs little elaboration. History dictated the outcome for Ford—that is, we already know the Yanks make a clean getaway—so his main focus is on the interplay between the characters. And this is where the film shines. Marlowe and Kendall are pitted against each other as adversaries who fight for the same side. The two men are at constant odds, bickering over command decisions and regarding each other with mutually wary suspicion. Adding to the drama, the two officers find themselves with a female problem on their hands when the brigade stops for the night at Greenbrier Plantation. Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) greets Marlowe and his men with typical Southern hospitality, but when she invites the officers in for supper, she's gets caught listening in on their post-dinner strategy session with the intent to spread the info to nearby Confederate troops. Marlowe can't risk knowledge of their ultimate target leaking, so he's forced to take Hannah along as a prisoner. A loose love triangle emerges between Marlowe, Kendall, and Hannah, but the film wisely avoids veering into overtly romantic territory. Who has time for love during a raiding mission, right? The interactions are mostly flirty in an antagonistic way—Marlowe and Hannah clearly don't like each other at first—but we gradually see a slight softening of Wayne's stubborn character, and he eventually apologizes for being such a mean old bastard: "I'm sorry for the hardship and humiliation that we've…that I've caused you." It takes a lot more for Marlowe and Kendall to learn to see eye-to-eye, and there are some smart moments of both physical and psychological one-upmanship. The best scene in the film is when Marlowe has to trust the doctor to remove a bullet from his calf. Let's just say that Kendall takes great pleasure prying it out.
As usual with Ford, the battles are filmed on a grand scale, and although they lack some of the intensity and visual spectacle of his earlier work—like the chase sequence in Stagecoach, the 1939 film that reinvigorated the western—there are several memorable scenes. The skirmish at Newton's Station is chaotic, with Confederate forces pouring out of a train like clowns from a clown car while Marlowe's men take up position behind turned over wagons and other makeshift barricades. (This is proceeded by a great scene where the town's inhabitants throw clods of dirt at the invading soldiers.) Later, with troops in short supply, a rebel officer is forced to call up teenaged cadets from a local military academy—a quandary inspired by the real-life Battle of New Market—and when the student-soldiers charge against the Union brigade, Marlowe is faced with a moral decision: Will he slaughter a group of too-young-to-die boys, or will he sound the retreat? Kendall also runs into an ethical dilemma: Should he escape back behind Northern lines or stay to tend to the wounded and risk imprisonment in the infamous Andersonville P.O.W. camp? Since this is a John Ford/John Wayne collaboration—the two basically invented the White Hat/Black Hat cowboy morality mythos—we can expect both Marlowe and Kendall to do the right thing. That said, although he's not quite an antihero—a concept that Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone would later bring to westerns—Marlowe is an obstinate, bulldoggish grump, prone to drunken rage and curmudgeonly outbursts. He's one of John Wayne's more conflicted characters, and that's reason enough to revisit The Horse Soldiers.
The Horse Soldiers Blu-ray, Video Quality
I don't think anyone expects much restoration work to be put into MGM Blu-ray catalog releases nowadays—unless we're talking about massively popular tentpole films—so I wasn't surprised to see that The Horse Soldiers' 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer has its share of untouched source-related deficiencies. White specks and small vertical scratches occasionally crop up, brightness and colors sometimes flicker and shift, and the print in general has a slightly grimy look. But here's the big question: Is it an improvement over the DVD? Absolutely. Although the film has never been super-sharp, clarity gets an appreciable boost here, with more visible textures in key areas, like the actors' faces and clothing. Aside from the fluctuations, which most often occur around scene changes, color is also nicely reproduced. Yankee blues are dense, green foliage is suitably lush, skin tones are warm and creamy, and black levels are as deep as they need to be while still preserving relevant shadow detail. One other thing to note: the film has always been very grainy, but MGM fortunately hasn't tried to smooth it away with DNR. I didn't notice any banding, blocking, or excess compression noise, although on this last point, grain is so thick it would be hard to tell if there were more noise than usual. Overall, this seems to be a straight transfer of a moderately used print. The film could certainly look better, but that would probably require a significant time/effort/money investment on the part of an already-strapped studio.
The Horse Soldiers Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Horse Soldiers rides onto Blu-ray with a DTS-HD Master Audio version of its mono soundtrack. Your player/receiver may identify this as 2.0, but there's no stereo separation here. And none needed. While I appreciate the efforts studios sometimes make to expand the soundtracks of older films to 5.1 channels—and beyond—I'm happy enough with the original versions in lossless format. I'm sure most purists agree. Although obviously limited dynamically and immersion-wise, this track gets all the essentials right. Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand—even if the recordings aren't as pristine as what you'd hear in a contemporary film—and the effects are as clear and powerful as can be expected. David Buttholph's nostalgic score sounds wonderful as well. Most importantly, there are no fatal hisses, drop-outs, pops, or crackles. The disc also includes a number of dub and subtitle options—see above for details.
The Horse Soldiers Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Unfortunately, the only bonus on the disc is a 1080p theatrical trailer, running just shy of three minutes.
The Horse Soldiers Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Horse Soldiers may not be the best of the John Ford/John Wayne collaborations—even Ford himself supposedly wasn't happy with the finished film—but it's a consistently entertaining Civil War drama that features Wayne as a stubborn, tough-as-rawhide Colonel leading his men on a seemingly impossible mission. Although the lack of special features is disappointing, the Blu-ray is a solid upgrade from the now-ancient DVD, which came out ten years ago. Recommended for Ford followers, Wayne worshippers, Civil War buffs—or, at least, those willing to forgive some historical inaccuracy—and western lovers in general.
The Horse Soldiers: Other Editions
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