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Author Topic: Horse Soldiers, Texas, Escape from Fort Bravo  (Read 7016 times)
Groggy
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« Reply #15 on: April 16, 2013, 07:20:19 PM »

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John Ford's Civil War adventure feels like it should be a lot better. The Horse Soldiers (1959) is beautifully shot, with John Wayne and William Holden making a dynamic star pairing. But the movie never quite gels, a disappointing collection of exciting action and awkward drama.

In spring 1863, Union and Confederate armies are deadlocked before Vicksburg, the Rebels' last stronghold on the Mississippi. General Ulysses S. Grant (Stan Jones) recruits Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) to lead a daring raid on Confederate supply lines. Marlowe plans to ride from La Grange, Tennessee down to Newton Station, destroy the supply depot there, then continue south to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The mission grows complicated when the Federals encounter Hanna Hunter (Constance Towers), a headstrong Southerner they arrest for fear of informing, and when Marlowe and his surgeon Major Kendall (William Holden) grow to loathe each other.

Based on Harold Sinclair's novel, The Horse Soldiers is a heavily fictionalized version of Grierson's Raid. At a time when the Union cavalry was a laughingstock ("Whoever saw a dead cavalryman?" went a rueful joke), Colonel Benjamin Grierson led 1,700 troopers on a daring raid that cut Rebel supply lines to Vicksburg, tied up thousands of Rebel troops and safely arrived in Baton Rouge with few casualties. These scratch Yankee horsemen put Southern cavalrymen like Nathan Bedford Forrest to shame, and materially aided Grant's campaign too. It's a fascinating tale of true-life derringdo tailor made for a movie.

The Horse Soldiers is certainly a handsome movie. Ford provides striking iconography, with beautiful shots of cavalry columns on the horizon, all captured by ace photographer William C. Clothier. Ford consciously recalls Matthew Brady's photographs, with carefully composed camp scenes and sweeping battle tableaux: one early scene even has Marlowe and staff photographed by a war correspondent. Ford stages two fabulous battles, especially the ambush at Newton Station, alongside colorful vignettes: a confrontation with two Confederate deserters (Strother Martin and Denver Pyle); Kendall chatting with a friendly Rebel colonel (Carleton Young); and a humorous episode where the Yankees encounter teenaged military cadets (loosely inspired by the Battle of New Market, Virginia).

Ford takes his only direct stab at America's biggest conflict (vignettes in Judge Priest and How the West Was Won notwithstanding), with commendable complexity. Ford consistently emphasizes the "gentlemanly" conduct of both sides. Marlowe's troops kill no civilians (accurate to Grierson's raid), care for Rebel wounded and bloodlessly disengage from the underage cadets. Yet this chivalry is contrasted with chaotic battles, Kendall's bloody operations and scenes of material destruction. Kendall proves the noblest character, putting aside nationality to treat wounded on both sides. Not quite an antiwar tract, The Horse Soldiers nonetheless eschews predictable flag-waving.

Then why isn't The Horse Soldiers a classic? Despite its quality set pieces, Ford's interstitial material rings consistently false. The central Marlowe-Kendall rivalry between never seems authentic; writers John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin give Marlowe a cringeworthy personal reason for hating doctors. No points for guessing how they patch things up. Similarly, headstrong Hannah falls for Marlowe simply because box office demands it. That's neglecting annoying side characters like the Victor McLaglen-lite Sergeant Kirby (Judson Pratt) and Marlowe's Lt. Colonel (Willis Bouchey), who reminds us he's a politician every time he's on screen. The finale also feels rushed, thanks to the death of stuntman Fred Kennedy.

John Wayne and William Holden redeem a lot. These tough guy leads have great chemistry, selling their thin characters and hokey rivalry through sheer charisma. Constance Towers (Sergeant Rutledge) is compelling early on as a resourceful Southern belle; later she deteriorates into token love interest. Willis Bouchey and tennis star Althea Gibson play annoying one-note roles. Strother Martin and Denver Pyle get one of the best scenes as scurvy Rebel deserters; Ford regulars Ken Curtis, Hank Worden, Russell Simpson, Anna Lee and Carleton Young put in mandatory appearances.

The Horse Soldiers is an entertaining flick, but seems like a missed opportunity. There's plenty to like, but Ford's mixed execution makes it merely a good picture. 7/10

http://nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-horse-soldiers.html

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