Based on an actual American Civil War incident in which Union Cavalry Col. Benjamin H. Grierson and troopers ventured deep into confederate territory to destroy southern rails and a supply center, John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers keenly disappoints. During the shoot, stuntman Fred Kennedy, who had been part of Ford’s crew for a decade, died after breaking his neck from a fall from a horse. This made Ford so despondent that he aborted the Louisiana shoot, moved production to California, and completed the project past all appetite for it. The mediocre result testifies to his loss of interest. Kennedy’s death broke his heart.
There are, as always, shafts of Ford’s achingly beautiful visual poetry, but the central conflict between Col. John Marlowe, the character based on Grierson, and regimental medico Major “Hank” Kendall doesn’t spark the drama the way the clash between Lt. Col. Owen Thursday and Capt. Kirby York does in Ford’s Fort Apache (1948)—this, despite the fact that John Wayne and William Holden both give splendid performances. Indeed, Marlowe’s burst of anger over the “medical experimentation” that took away his wife from him is a stunning moment in Wayne’s legendary career. Even if one is seated, watching and hearing it makes one tremble.
Another profound moment for Wayne: Marlowe’s gracious response to the death of Lukey, a southern woman’s house slave. Lukey is played, incidentally, by Althea Gibson, one of America’s greatest athletes, the “Jackie Robinson of tennis.” Rather than a retirement Hollywood outing for Gibson, her appearance here marked her transfer from amateur to professional status in tennis. And she is okay for Ford; Gibson doesn’t embarrass herself.
One last stray remark, this one pertaining to the spanking of a boy confederate soldier. Sam Fuller pays hommage to Ford with the spanking of a Nazi youth in The Big Red One (1980). But how different the two gentlemen were. Whereas Ford cuts away after the first slap, Fuller relishes every blow!
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