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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. Written by
John Vogel <email@example.com>
John Ford probably did more to glorify the old American Cavalry of the 19th Century than any other major Hollywood Director. But while the Civil War is an element that keeps turning up in his movies, he never actually did do the Civil War film he wanted to do - a biography of the career of Ulysses Grant. In his career he tackled the Civil War three times.
In PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND he dealt with the story of Dr.Samuel Mudd, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for involvement in Lincoln's Assassination. In HOW THE WEST WAS WON, Ford did the segment dealing with the battle of "SHILOH", with Harry Morgan as General Grant and John Wayne as General Sherman. This film was the nearest that Ford ever got to his dream film. THE HORSE SOLDIERS was the only film that was devoted to a full study of the effect of the war in the South, on both Union and Rebel soldiers. While not, perhaps, the best that Ford could have achieved - he was in the twilight of his master career - it is a fine film none-the-less.
The story is based on an incident in 1863 known as Grierson's Raid. Cavalry leader Benjamin Grierson was sent by Grant into Alabama and Mississippi on a raid to attack a railway junction, supposedly to destroy it for strategic reasons. While it was important to knock the railway junction out of effective work, the real purpose was to tie up Confederate forces in these backwaters. Since December 1862 Grant was struggling to capture the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. But try as he did Grant kept losing to the Confederates under Joseph Johnston and John C. Pemberton (the commander in Vicksburg). But Grant had noticed how Confederate cavalry men like Earl Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest had forced him to use men to protect his supply lines, and took valuable time away from him trying to fight off or track them down. He decided that Grierson, a first rate Cavalry leader, could do the same thing to Johnston. A very intelligent Confederate Commander, Johnston was nervous at unexpected difficulties. Grant reasoned that Grierson's men would panic Johnston, and cause him to waste time chasing him down.
As it turned out Grierson's Raid worked. The pinning down of large numbers of Rebel troops in Alabama and Missisippi was wonderful for Grant's Vicksburg campaign. It was the beginning of the successful conclusion of the campaign, as Johnston's attention was now split between trying to help support Pemberton and trying to reassure frightened southern populations in the hinterlands. Grierson got most of his men back to Northern lines. Vicksburg was able to hold out until July 4, 1863. It's fall (the day after Lee's defeat at Gettysburg) really marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War.
This incident is the basis for THE HORSE SOLDIERS. Ford concentrates on what the experience of the war must have been like in the Southern countryside. Certain things are taken from other incidents and battlefields. When a military school's cadets are brought into the field to try to catch or slow down John Wayne's men, Ford is really picking up on an incident in the war in Virginia, when the young cadets at the Virginia Military Institute came out to fight the Union troops under Sheridan in 1864. One can forgive the transition of the incident.
It has been pointed out that one of the characters, Colonel Secord (Willis Bouchey) is a splendid type - the political officer. Men like Secord (usually in the position of General) bedeviled both sides, because of their usually normal level of mediocrity or idiocy. A few rose to the job well - the best of the Northern political generals was "Black Jack" Logan, who would be a valuable associate of Sherman in the battles around Atlanta. But for every positive General Logan, there were thieves like Benjamin "Spoons" Butler, who feathered his nest as military governor of New Orleans (he supposedly stole even the silver spoons of the citizenry). Actually Secord is normally intelligent, and follows Wayne's strategy. But he is constantly looking ahead at post-war elections. Towards the end he even wonders if the White House beckons.
Another lovely moment shows the fraying of the Southern cause. Wayne and his men come across two Rebel deserters (Strother Martin and Denver Pyle) who have tied up the local sheriff (Russell Simpson). Wayne thanks Martin and Pyle for their unofficial assistance to the Northern cause,telling them which way they plan to go. While Martin chatters away (mentioning the strength of Rebel forces in the area), Wayne carefully knocks out Pyle and then Martin, and then unties Simpson and assists in tying up the two deserters. William Holden is watching this, and later asks why he helped Simpson. Wayne explains that he decided to feed the deserters false information about his own movements, as they would probably give the information to the Confederates later on anyway.
All the performances are fine, with Wayne in particular as a man who hates doctors and medicine for a valid personal reason. Holden is in a subordinate role but he gets some nice moments. So does Constance Towers, in a rare leading part, as a passionate Confederate supporter who gradually gets to like Wayne. Carleton Young, as a former friend of Wayne, has a moment trying to rally Confederate forces at the railway depot.
It is a good Ford film, and makes one wish that Ford had made his Ulysses Grant biography.
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