The Horse Soldiers

Today, Keith over at Cosmic America posted a look at that timeless classic, The Horse Soldiers.

The Horse Soldiers
Image via Wikipedia

Not to over play this, but The Horse Soldiers is an AMC staple.  I think the FCC made it some mandatory showing.  Heck, for years the local stations aired the movie in that ‘ween sport season month after the Super Bowl on Sunday afternoons.  I may have seen it a dozen times… no make that a dozen dozen!   In fact, I’ve seen it so many times I’ve memorized the lines in the Italian and Spanish dubbed releases.

Keith, what rock you been living under, man?  🙂

Seriously, Keith makes several good points about the movie.  For the rest of you living under rocks without a background in our fine Western Theater, this movie sorta, kinda portrays Grierson’s Raid in the Vicksburg campaign.  Maybe a bit of a whole lot of Hollywood spin put in for good effect.

The flick does come across with a double dose of good old red-white-blue.  Lots and lots of stereotypes.  And perhaps a bit more “cowboy” than the Civil War could stand.  You see the hard-bitten “Yankee” commander, Colonel John Marlow, played by John Wayne (of course).  Miss. Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar (Constance Towers) is a page from Gone with the Wind…. oh, but with that little bit of Belle Boyd thrown in for good measure.  Her servant Lukey (Alethea Gibson) seems confined to the “faithful servant” character.  Although there is that little reference to “contraband.”

And Lots of marching songs in the movie.  But remember this movie was filmed at a time when the height of special effects was some guy in a lizard suit crashing through model buildings.  The soundtracks were in many cases part of the dialog, not just some extra set of tracks on a CD used to pump up publicity for the flick.

But reconciliations?  Well there is that “old ring knocker club” exchange between Dr. / Major Henry Kendall (William Holden) and Colonel Johnathan Miles, CSA (deep voiced Carleton Young):

Kendall:  How are Susan and the kids?

Miles: Oh, they’re fine.  They’re in Vicksburg.  I suspect you’ll be seeing them soon.

Kendall: Nice try, Johnathan.

Um…. perhaps cordiality, but these guys are not sharing a mint julep on the veranda. These guys are sparing all through those smiles.

And Miss Hunter (of Greenbriar) leaves no doubt as to her sentiments about Yankees: “They’ll catch up to you and cut you to pieces, you nameless, fatherless scum. I just wish I could be there to see it.”

The “Cadets go to War” segment is worth note.

Yes lots of anachronisms… Lots of fine Southern Patriotism… and the Confederate regulars firing “Peter” and “Paul” with a torch, vice a lanyard!   I actually wonder if the battle scene inspired Ronald Maxwell for the First Manassas battle in Gods and Generals.

I recall reading the basis for the “Cadet” incident was not, as many have said, the VMI appearance at New Market, but rather the lesser known Alabama Corps of Cadets at Tuscaloosa.  The narrative on the marker seems to better match the storyline from the move… well except that the cadets didn’t do so well at Tuscaloosa.

I must say I’ve always found the Confederate deserter scene the most complex, however.  Not often that Confederate deserters get screen time (even today).  And having the damn Yankee Colonel turn them back over to the local sheriff (with the complements of Miss Hunter of Greenbriar), sort of spins a non-traditional tale.

And how much “burning” and “looting” went on?  Weren’t the blue coats supposed to have forked tails and hooves?   Seemed to be a whole lot of food left around for Miss Hannah Hunter (of Greenbriar) to serve up for the officer’s meeting.

“Now, what was your preference? The leg… or the breast.”

I could break down the movie into all sorts of details, but I’m not some film critic.  I’m just filing a post on a slow day!  I do recommend a review of the movie by my friend Greg Biggs, from the June 1993 issue of Blue & Gray Magazine.  Get the back issue, as it also includes a feature article on Grierson’s Raid.

In that article Greg mentioned the intended ending for the movie, which I think is important to understanding the presentation.   John Ford planned to show the troopers in victory entering Baton Rouge.  However, one of Ford’s friends, stuntman Fred Kennedy, suffered a broken neck from a horse stunt.  Kennedy died from the injury.  As result, Ford cut the production short, ending the movie with the final battle and abrupt end.

Like Keith says, viewers today should consider the movie in context with its year of release – right before the centennial.   So there is a lot of extra action and flash.  Consider a trailer posted around that time.  Gotta sell to those budding little Johnnie Rebs and Billy Yanks out there!

If you are taking recommendations, Keith – bookend The Horse Soldiers with The Undefeated…. Let’s just say Unreconstructed Rebel Spring Break!

5 thoughts on “The Horse Soldiers

  1. I have enjoyed the Horse Soldiers, in fact I have a copy on DVD. I remember reading the comic book they issued in conjunction with the movie release, wish I still had that. Anyway, I had first read of Grierson’s Raid before I saw the movie, and as I watched it struck me that this sure sounds like Grierson’s Raid. Then I read the book, don’t remember the author, there was a second book with Marlowe going out west, but details are sketchy.

  2. Hey Craig – I totally felt like I was under a rock. Seriously, I was embarrassed that I had never seen this film. Embarrassed. Yes – without a doubt, the women in this film are a fiery crowd, not only Hannah…but the central casting southern townswomen who pelt the invading Yanks with dirt clods as they ride into town.
    But I was focusing on the men, who never express the hatred for theie enemies that is so apparent in letters from the period. If anything, they do their duty and kill one another. As they repeat over and over…it was war and they had a job to do.
    But the brother vs. brother theme (while not the principle one) runs throughout – both explicitly and implicitly – culminating with the final gracious offer by a Confederate officer – to have his regimental surgeon see to wounded Yankees (with a courteous tip of the hat and all).
    This, I fell is reflective of the spirit of reconciliation of the mid-twentieth century – at least the official one. So while the soldiers do not embrace one another in brotherly reconciled love, they do show a mutual respect for one another in many of the films most important scenes. This in a sense allows the mid-century audience to expect the inevitable outcome – the suppression of rebellion and the reunion of the nation.

    But that’s just my two cents….anyway – thanks for responding with this wonderful post! Talk to you soon,

    • “But the brother vs. brother theme (while not the principle one) runs throughout – both explicitly and implicitly – culminating with the final gracious offer by a Confederate officer – to have his regimental surgeon see to wounded Yankees (with a courteous tip of the hat and all).”

      I can see some of what you are referring to. But at the same time that particular offer you cite (the offer of a surgeon) was indeed a rather common exchange in the historical sense.

      There are plenty of derisive comments aimed at the two sides. Take the “cadet” scene for example. Note how the requesting officer speaks somewhat disdainfully of the “yankee.” Later consider how the Federals expressed a complete lack of respect for the cadets until the shooting started.

      And you don’t think the references to “Andersonville” come with a bit of anger, maybe just a shade of hate?

      BTW, one reenactment in the 1990s, we “rode” into a town in central Mississippi, not unlike that scene from the movie. The locals pelted us with paper wads…. some things never change.

  3. As an aside, this movie was filmed in my hometown of Natchitoches, La. (where I still presently live). Heard a lot of stories about it growing up that would have made a good oral history film in itself. Then, Steel Magnolias was filmed here and more recently it was used as the setting for the True Blood books. Memory of The Horse Soldiers is rapidly fading, but I’d still like to capture what’s left in some way.

    • Some of it was also filmed in Natchez and Washington in Adams County, Mississippi where I grew up in the 1980s. We knew the people that owned the land the cadet battle scene was filmed on as well as other scenes. The slave cabins seen near the end are on the land and I’ve hunted in the woods behind them when I was a kid. I also killed a fox squirrel out the tree under which John Wayne and William Holden had their bout of fisticuffs. And we have had many a family reunion at Jefferson College. Even with the Hollywood liberties I still love this movie and singing the songs therein. My son grew up on this movie as well. When he was 5 years old he could quote many a movie starring the Duke.

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