The Horse Soldiers, John Ford’s Civil War western

In 1959, John Ford directed the only movie about the Civil War of his career. In spite of some lengthy parts, this aesthetically pleasing film is played by great actors and offers an interesting philosophical vision of war and violence (topical themes more newsworthy than ever…unfortunately).


Movie poster showing John Wayne and William Holden who play the main characters


In 1863, Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) must lead a squad into the heart of the Confederate territory in order to destroy the Southern nerve center: Newton Station. This raid is meant as a diversion to help General Grant’s attack on Vicksburg. To Marlowe’s utter discontentment, Major Kendall (William Holden) —mostly concerned about his medical values rather than the military mission— is also part of the brigade. Moreover, to avoid a possible alert, the soldiers are compelled to travel with Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers), a Confederate sympathizer. A high-risk mission in perspective…

Based upon real events such as Grierson’s raid or the battle of New Market, the movie offers an interesting documentary vision of the US epic, since it tends to demystify the valorous Northern victory to show the harshness of the Civil War. Many soldiers died of diseases (Mitchell has malaria, Dunker dies of septicemia), and the slightest injury could have signed your own death warrant. Furthermore, the southern landscapes, enhanced by shots quite similar to Murnau’s Sunrise (swamps, Marlowe and Secord’s conversation in wild grass), show the grandeur but also the dangers of Nature.

The three protagonists: J.Wayne, W.Holden and C.Towers

In this hostile territory, John Wayne performed the typical “Fordian” hero: a lonesome protagonist who is morally isolated and guided by his duty. According to Ford, duty is destiny[1]. Marlowe embodies perfectly the US fortune: he leads his brigade as Moses guided his people. This break through enemy territory is also a real maiden trip for Marlowe. This hard and surly character finally manages to exorcize his inner demons. He becomes much more “human,” sympathetic and aware of the tragedy caused by the Civil War. Even Hannah changes in the course of the movie: this woman (who keeps her cards close to her chest) realizes rapidly the consequences of war when she sees that there are victims on both sides. Her love story with Marlowe clearly illustrates her general evolution.

“Wars are not caused by bad people but by innocents,” Ford said[2]. This quote could be the leitmotiv of The Horse Soldiers, for “The Master” offers a philosophical vision of war: how can killing people (and sometimes your “brothers” and friends) be considered as a victory? The director doesn’t side with anyone: the Southern and Northern moral values are on an equal footing (patriotism, bravery, Kendall delivers a black woman baby), there are good and bad characters on both camps and slavery is barely depicted. Kendall represents humanity: he saves soldiers’ lives no matter the uniform. He must be the emblem of hope all through the film. The cadets’ attack illustrates the stupidity of this war: sacrificing children (the symbol of innocence and the “future” of America) is just unthinkable. As a response, Marlowe refuses to participate in the fight.

The cadets’ attack: make a reference to the battle of New Market

The touches of humor, such as the spanking of a cadet, are really burlesque: stupid actions lead to silly punishments! The movie is punctuated with thought-provoking lines: “war is not exactly a civilized business,” Marlowe says, and Hannah’s monologue about the fratricidal war prompts the audience to reflect on violence and wars in general.

However, the movie lacks rhythm and the screenplay remains problematic: monotonous passages are frequent, and the action scenes are rare and too brief (such as the brawl between Marlowe and Kendall). The score (I Left My Love) tries to counterbalance this humdrum effect somehow and attempts to galvanize the intrigue with difficulty.

Nevertheless, the last scene is wonderfully metaphoric and seems to symbolize Lincoln’s words: “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. In this way, this final establishing shot of a shed must be the representation of the US and their future re-union.

John Marlowe as THE guide and THE hero

The Horse Soldiers may not be the best Fordian western ever…but, the philosophical approach of war remains really interesting. Ford, master of the western genre, worked hard on the artistic dimension (lights, angles and camera moves), and the film is truly appreciable. Of course, John Wayne is also an added value: his performance is excellent, as usual. The movie still remains a classic: a must-see!

The Horse soldiers (1959)

Directed by

John Ford

Produced by

John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin (United Artists)

Screenplay by

John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin

Running time

115 minutes

Cast: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers, Althea Gibson, and Willis Bouchey

[1] GALLAGHER, Tag, John Ford, L’homme et ses films, California (first edition), Capricci, 2014, p 48.

[2] Ibid, p 60.

Destruction of Newton Station

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