Thursday, April 7, 2011

Patriotism (and the Brotherhood of Men At Arms) in John Ford's The Horse Soldiers

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

I am often embarrassed to admit that there are a number of Civil War films that I still have yet to see. Sometimes, I am embarrassed to admit that I have seen one (for example: Gods and Generals). But I am happy to report that I have now added John Ford's Epic The Horse Soldiers (1959) to the arsenal. Not because I thought it was a particularly good film, but because it will give me something to talk about when I want to impress my friends at parties.

For those of you who have not seen this film -  There are a couple of things going on. First - the tense love-hate relationship between Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) and his prisoner, Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar (Constance Towers). Second, there is the even more tense, pretty much all hate relationship between Marlowe and Major Henry Kendall (William Holden), a Union army doctor.

All of this is set in the Civil War Confederacy, behind enemy lines, so to speak - where the Union soldiers wreak havoc on the Rebel's ability to fight. Tearing up railroads, burning cotton and salt know, the stuff the Union army was great at doing.

Infused in to the war backdrop is an overtly patriotic bent. Both sides seem intently wedded to their cause. And they express this both verbally and through music - as the men of both armies march in to action singing national and otherwise patriotic songs.

But another theme runs alongside - weaving a reconciliatory thread into the story. While both sides clearly want victory - neither seems particularly hostile (emotionally) toward their enemies - well, at least the men act this way. I'll talk about the women some other day. Of course they fight gallantly - it is their duty to do so. But the film contains all the essential ingredients for a "we are all just soldiers after all" wrap up.

Take the encounter between Kendall and one of his old army buddies who had gone with the Rebs. They have a pleasant exchange, naturally, and go their separate ways to their respective causes. This type of scene in a Civil War film is about as obligatory as the one featuring an amputation. Every Civil War picture has it, you know. But the last scene in the film is really my favorite. It leaves you just plain feeling good about things - when a Rebel officer offers his regimental surgeon to look after Union wounded.

See - we can all just get along...right after we kill each other in great profusion.

There is so much more to talk about....slaves, loyal slaves, Confederate women, the transposition of the Battle of New Market (VMI Cadets...) into the Western Theater, Bill Holden's tight pants, John Wayne's acting chops....the list goes on - so I will save some stuff for a later date.

For now, I want to suggest this. Ford released The Horse Soldiers just two years before the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965). This was a commemoration that highlighted the tragedy of the brother against brother war and the spirit of reconciliation. The film is most certainly a reflection of the times on one hand - but on the other....the centennial commemorative period was (officially) devoid of problematic issues. The films highlights a few. Slavery makes more than one appearance in the film in very interesting ways....stay tuned - I will have lots to say about that later.




  1. Keith,

    Check out "Fiction as Fact: The Horse Soldiers & Popular Memory" by Neil Longley York. You'll dig it the most.

  2. I found a few things that I liked in "The Horse Soldiers." The first five minutes is my favorite part. The theme song "I left my Love" is catchy, much in the mode of many other John Ford films. The actors playing Grant and Sherman captured what I imagine those great heroes were like - plain, matter of fact, determined to win at Vicksburg, and even humble. Grant asks Marlowe if he had a backup plan; he replies "Do you, sir?" Grant responds "Well I guess I asked for that."

    Beyond that, the film bogs down in Lost Cause myths. The "loyal slave" portrayed by, of all people, tennis legend Althea Gibson, is appalling for a film made during the Civil Rights era. Indeed, it foretells "Gods and Generals" which cast Donzaleigh Abernathy - daughter of civil rights icon Ralph David Abernathy - in a similar role. The Confederates and Union soldiers are portrayed in near-comic terms, particularly when John Wayne comes across two rebels (one played by Denver Pyle of "Dukes of Hazard" fame). The bit with the drunken sergeant major is another Ford staple, akin to Victor McLaughlin in "Fort Apache" or "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" (two excellent movies.) Yes, the blatant historical inaccuracy of the mixing the Battle of New Market with the Vicksburg campaign is supremely evident. I guess Wayne's raiders needed more opposition, so Ford recruited a local military college to serve as a potent rebel army.

    Yet I found a few items of merit. First, Constance Towers and the rebel colonel are both Janus-faced. They treat Union men one way with gentility, and yet say how much they'll fight against them to their Confederate friends. Also, the headmaster of the military school discharges a young drummer boy after his mother pleads for his release. She told the man that three of the boy's brothers had already died in the war. Yet, the drummer boy is keen to serve. Surely each example says something about the Confederate home front, gender, and allegiances.

    Robert Cook's "Troubled Commemoration" also discusses "The Horse Soldiers."

  3. [...] Keith over at Cosmic America posted a look at that timeless classic, The Horse Soldiers. Image via [...]