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A Union Cavalry outfit is sent behind confederate lines in strength to destroy a rail/supply center. 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 Wayne's been given a critical job to do by none other than General Ulysses S. Grant. He's been ordered to take 3 brigades deep into Confederate territory and destroy a critical rail supply station at a place called Newton's Station and then get his troops out the best way he can. He's ordered to take along, an army surgeon played by William Holden. Wayne's got what appears to be an unreasoning dislike of Holden and their rivalry professional and personal is what drives the plot of the Horse Soldiers.
John Ford always disparaged the films he made after Wings of Eagles, but in my opinion, The Horse Soldiers is one of his finest films. Also in my humble opinion he managed to get one of John Wayne's finest film performances. Wayne's a volunteer officer, in civilian life he rose from section hand on a railroad to an construction engineer. Holden calls him "section hand" as a term of derision after Wayne consistently refers to him as "croker."
Wayne and Holden were very close personal friends and friendly rivals at the box office. That's part of the reason that The Horse Soldiers is so good, the chemistry between them. In fact when Wayne died in 1979, Holden was said to have gone on one legendary drinking binge. Who would have suspected we'd have lost him as well two years later.
Holden as the doctor has a less flamboyant part than Wayne, but he makes the most of what he was given. I suspect knowing the relationship between Wayne and John Ford, he knew going in his part would be less, but he did it anyway.
Anyone who thinks John Wayne incapable of acting should see the scene in the saloon at Newton's Station after the Union forces repel a Confederate attack and are about their business destroying the railroad property. In a great drunk scene he reveals to Constance Towers the reason for his hatred of the medical profession. I won't reveal it, but it's something we can all understand. Wayne did this scene so well that Ford used an abbreviated version of it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Ford makes marvelous use of music in there, weaving traditional Civil War era songs with the song written by Stan Jones for the film, I Left My Love. That is one catchy and infectious ballad, one of the best things written for a John Ford movie. Incidentally Stan Jones makes a brief appearance in the film as Ulysses S. Grant and does well by him.
There are two in the supporting cast that deserve mention. During the Civil War Lincoln had to deal with volunteer political generals, most of whom were a flop. Willis Bouchey playing John Wayne's co-commander in the expedition captures the phenomenon to perfection. He's argumentative, arrogant, and a general pain in the butt to Wayne. It's probably Bouchey's finest screen performance.
And Carleton Young also gives what I think is his finest screen performance as the one armed Confederate colonel who tries in vain to stop Wayne from completing his plans. It's a role that requires dignity and strength and Carleton Young is marvelous. In fact the contrast between Bouchey and Young as soldiers is pretty obvious.
The relationship between the Section Hand and The Croker evolves during the running time of The Horse Soldiers. It's a relationship well worth seeing develop.
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