The Horse Soldiers
Adventure / War / Western
Directed by John Ford
Written by John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin, Harold Sinclair (Novel)
Produced by John Lee Mahin, Marin Rackin
Cinematography by William H. Clothier
Distributed by United Artists
John Wayne as Colonel John Marlowe
William Holden as Major Henry 'Hank' Kendall
Constance Towers as Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar
Althea Gibson as Lukey, Miss Hunter's fiercely loyal black maid
Judson Pratt as Sergeant Major Kirby
Ken Curtis as Cpl. Wilkie
Willis Bouchey as Col. Phil Secord
Bing Russell as Dunker, Yankee Soldier Amputee
O.Z. Whitehead as Otis 'Hoppy' Hopkins (medical assistant)
Hank Worden as Deacon Clump
Chuck Hayward as Union captain
Denver Pyle as Jackie Jo (rebel deserter)
Strother Martin as Virgil (rebel deserter)
Basil Ruysdael as The Reverend (Jefferson Military Academy)
Carleton Young as Col. Jonathan Miles, CSA
William Leslie as Maj. Richard Gray
William Henry as Confederate lieutenant
Walter Reed as Union officer
Anna Lee as Mrs. Buford
William Forrest as Gen. Steve Hurlburt
Ron Hagerthy as Bugler
Russell Simpson as Acting Sheriff Henry Goodbody
The Horse Soldiers trailer
It is the spring of 1863 and America is torn apart by civil war. Frustrated by the inability of the Union Army to push through Confederate troops to Vicksburg, Mississippi, General Grant meets with Col. John Marlow on board a riverboat and orders him to form a cavalry brigade and attack Confederate supply lines throughout Mississippi. Marlow offers a plan to attack Newton Station, the Confederate Army’s main supply depot located 300 miles deep in enemy territory. Grant authorizes the action.
While briefing his troops, Marlow discovers that surgeon Maj. Henry Kendall is assigned to the brigade and he is most displeased by this. Kendall is a bit perplexed by Marlow’s attitude towards him, and asks Marlow what should happen to the soldiers that are wounded? Marlow informs him that they should be left behind.
The brigade departs and soon finds themselves behind enemy lines. It isn’t long before they are noticed by a small group of Confederate troops and fired upon. Marlow orders Maj. William Secord to take a small portion of the brigade and retreat, with orders to regroup later. Marlow hopes to convince the Confederate troops that the brigade retreated, leaving no Union troops within Confederate territory. Marlow goes to regroup with Maj. Secord and upon his return, discovers that Kendall has been busy delivering a baby of a former slave. Marlow is furious with Kendall and has him placed under arrest, insisting that the doctor’s duty is to the soldiers and the soldiers only.
Later that day, the brigade arrives at Greenbriar Landing, a plantation run by Hannah Hunter. Hannah lives there alone with her black maid Lukey. When the brigade arrives, Hannah invites them into her home for dinner, which surprises Lukey due to Hannah’s strong loyalty to the South. After dinner that evening, Marlow asks Hannah to use the dining room so the officers can converse, to which Hannah refuses; she says they must use the study instead. Marlow and his officers follow to the study and Marlow dismisses Kendall for the evening. Kendall, however, is suspicious of the southern lady’s hospitality, and follows her. Kendall quickly discovers that anything said in the study can clearly be heard through the open fireplace grate, and brings the two women and his findings to Marlow, upon which, Hannah’s true nature is revealed. She stuns Marlow with her contempt and disgust for the Union soldiers. Hannah has heard Marlow’s plans to attack Newton Station and then continue on through Mississippi to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Marlow is forced to bring them with the brigade to ensure that Hannah cannot inform the Confederates of his plan, and they depart the following day.
Hannah rejects Kendall’s attempts to befriend her and tries to escape, making a break from the brigade, but is recaptured trying to cross a river. Marlow forces Hannah to promise not to make another escape attempt. As the cavalry continue on, they spot a Confederate militia approaching and Marlow orders his unit into the woods to hide. Hannah makes another attempt to betray their position, running towards the edge of the woods, but Kendall tackles her to the ground, and Marlow knocks her unconscious. When Hannah comes around, she vehemently protests her treatment, but promises not to draw attention to them again. Later that day, the unit comes under fire from a couple of Confederate deserters who are quickly captured and interrogated. Under duress the men reveal that the Confederate Army is traveling to Vicksburg, which will take them away from Newton Station. Marlow pushes the brigade on towards Newton Station.
Upon arriving at Newton Station, Marlow meets up with Union Major Grey, who has pushed his forces down to wipe out most of the resistance in the town. Kendall notices that one of the Confederate prisoners is an old friend of his, Jonathan Miles, who has lost an arm in the fighting. Marlow is about to burn the town and station, when a supply train approaches. When Marlow notices that no guard is posted on the train, he knows that they are about to be attacked. His men barely have time to take position when the train pulls in. Confederate soldiers erupt forth from the train, and Miles is able to overcome his guard and rallies the Confederate prisoners to join in the fight. Kendall knocks Miles to the ground to save his life.
Later Kendall is treating the wounded from the battle in a makeshift hospital repurposed from the towns tavern. When Marlow enters, he is surprised to see Hannah and Lukey helping the doctor with his patient, 'Hoppy' Hopkins. Frustrated by the turn of events and the casualties that have been suffered in the attack, Marlow drinks heavily from the liquor at the bar. Marlow orders his men to blow up the station and then tear up the surrounding railroads. Marlow wryly comments to Secord that before the war, Marlow’s job was building railroads. Marlow and Kendall get into another bitter fight regarding Kendall’s behavior, and when Hannah questions Marlow about this later, he reveals that his wife was inadvertently killed by a doctor’s malpractice years earlier, and he has harbored nothing for contempt for the profession since.
Once Marlow’s men have finished disabling the railroads, the unit pushes further south, with Hoppy taking the wounded soldiers north. As the unit passes through a small town, they again come under fire from Confederate scouts. Although Marlow’s unit is again victorious, it comes at a cost as Lukey is killed. Several of Marlow’s men offer Hannah their condolences, and Marlow offers to let her go. Hannah declines, knowing it is too late to stop them.
The unit continues south and Marlow’s scouts return with word that a Confederate unit is about to cross the river . Marlow orders that his men attack the unit the following morning. Meanwhile, the Confederate leader has sent a request to a young boy’s military academy for assistance, and the boys marshal to do their duty. In the morning, Marlow is dismayed to discover that one of his men has died from complications from an amputation surgery under Kendall’s care. Again, Marlow yells at Kendall, and this time Kendall has had enough and challenges Marlow to have a fight. While they slug it out, word arrives that the Confederates are attacking, and both men run to attend to their duties. However, when Marlow arrives at the field, he is surprised to see the regiment of very young boys in full Confederate battle dress firing on his men. Marlow refuses to give the order to return fire on the children and orders his men to withdraw, leading the boys to believe that they have routed the enemy and won a major victory.
Marlow is forced to find another way to attack the Confederate force and begins moving his troops around to another angle when he receives word that a large Confederate force is bearing down on them from the north, and should arrive in about an hour. Marlow’s battalion has arrived at a bridge leading south into a swamp, and Marlow orders his men to cross it to escape. Marlow speaks with Hannah, and tells her that since the Confederate troops are arriving shortly he will leave her there. Just as the battalion is about to cross the bridge, Confederate forces on the other side open fire and Marlow is hit in the lower leg. Hannah and Kendall rush to help Marlow, removing the ball and bandaging his leg. Marlow returns to lead his men across the bridge to route the enemy before ordering his men to blow up the bridge.
Kendall surprises Marlow by declaring his intention to stay behind and look after the wounded, even though it surely means he will be captured and sent to the notorious Andersonville prison camp. Kendall knows the risk, and the two men bid each other goodbye, and it is clear that despite their differences, the two men have developed a grudging respect for one another. Marlow then bids goodbye to Hannah, and admits he has fallen in love with her. Marlow then turns to light the fuse on the bridge and dash across as it explodes, just as the Confederate forces arrive.
The movie is based on the incidents of Grierson’s Raid and the Battle of Newton’s Station. Colonel Benjamin Grierson led a unit of 1,700 men from northern Mississippi south to cut off the railroad connecting Newton’s Station and Vicksburg, Mississippi. For as daring as it was, it was surprisingly both effective and relatively peaceful, resulting in a considerably minor loss of life on both sides.
The film was shot in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana by the Cane River Lake, and around Natchez, Mississippi.
John Ford was forced to cut the climactic battle scene short when a veteran stuntman, Fred Kennedy, broke his neck and was killed falling from his horse. Ford was very distraught about the event and closed the set, eventually completing filming in the San Fernando Valley. The scene where Kennedy fell remains in the film.
This film marked the beginning of major deals for stars in Hollywood. Both John Wayne and William Holden received $775,000 each for the film, plus 20% of the profits. A contract of this magnitude was unheard of at the time. However, the movie failed financially and there was no profit for the actors to split.
The film is the only feature film starring tennis star Althea Gibson. Gibson was the first African-American woman to win singles championships at the French Open (1956), Wimbledon (1957, 1958) and the United States Open (1957, 1958). According to the segregation laws in the South at the time, Althea would have been required to stay in separate housing from the rest of the crew, so John Ford shot her scenes in California.
Ford and Wayne had a very close working relationship spanning over 50 years that yielded some of the great classics in John Wayne’s career. It is not disputed that John Ford played a great role in making John Wayne the iconic star that he still is today. Ford gave Wayne his breakthrough role in Stagecoach , in which Ford was nominated for both Best Picture, and Best Director. Films that Ford and Wayne made together include, Stagecoach , The Long Voyage Home , They Were Expendable , 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon , Rio Grande , The Quiet Man , The Searchers , The Wings of Eagles , The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo , The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, How the West Was Won, and finally concluding with Donovan’s Reef.