The Horse Soldiers (1959) – John Ford’s Descent into Cynicism

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On multiple levels, “The Horse Soldiers” is the halfway point between “The Searchers” and “The Man who shot Liberty Valance.” The eleventh collaboration between John Ford and John Wayne, the film was released in 1959, three years after “The Searchers” and three years before “Liberty Valance.” Yet the “The Horse Soldiers” is not only a bridge between these two films chronologically. The film marks a shift in Ford’s perspective on the West, as he slowly grows disenchanted with its myths.

The film takes place in 1863 during Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) is a tough as nails cavalry commander who is ordered to lead his brigade behind enemy lines and destroy a Confederate rail hub. Cut off from supplies and surrounded by hostile rebels, Marlowe must complete his objective and lead his men safely back to Union lines, or else he’ll spend the rest of the war in Andersonville prison. To make matters worse, Marlow must deal with Major Henry Kendall (William Holden) a military doctor who is just as stubborn as Marlowe. There’s also the issue of Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) a Southern Belle captured by Marlowe who is not too eager to assist the Yankees.

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“The Horse Soldiers” is by no means Ford’s best film. Which is not to say that it isn’t entertaining. John Wayne and William Holden do an admirable job disliking each other on screen. (Holden and Wayne also disliked each other off screen as well, and both vowed never to work together again.) Ford is the master of actions scenes, and there are great shots of the cavalry silhouetted against the horizon. Yet the film lacks the vision present in Ford’s other films. It doesn’t have the grandeur of “The Searchers,” nor the introspection of “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.”

In fact, the film’s greatest fault is that it lacks identity. Hokey scenes of the brave cavalry riding off to fight for the good old US of A are intercut with ghastly moments of brutal warfare. Ford shows us the inside of a war hospital, and we see young boys beg for comfort as they succumb to their wounds. Tonally the film feels stitched together, like a Frankenstein monster of myth and reality.

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A tension pervades the film, and there’s a frenetic energy that makes it uncomfortable to watch. It’s as though Ford is trying to hold onto the last vestiges of the Western myth, but cynicism keeps creeping into his vision. It’s not until “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance,” that the cynicism will blossom, and we’ll see Ford’s final disillusionment with the myth he created.

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