The Horse Soldiers (Blu-ray)
Directed by John Ford
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 1080p AVC codec Running Time: 120 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English; Dolby Digital 2.0 mono Spanish, French
Subtitles: SDH, French
MSRP: $ 16.99
Release Date: May 10, 2011
Review Date: May 13, 2011
A Civil War-set historical drama starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford sounds like the makings of a classic. The Horse Soldiers might not quite make it to that lofty designation, but it’s a vastly entertaining western which picks up considerable steam in its second half and features some iconic moments from the director and his top-billed star. Add William Holden’s spicy performance to the mix, and you’ve got a movie that’s well worth the two hour investment.
With the Union army suffering surprising defeats during the first years of the Civil War, General U.S. Grant comes up with a risky plan which would send a brigade of Union soldiers across enemy lines moving south toward Baton Rouge in order to surprise the Confederates at Vicksburg in the hopes of cutting supply lines and escape routes and hopefully leading to a turning point in the war. To carry out this near-suicide mission, Grant selects Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne), a stern commander with a trusty cadre of officers and men who’ll do his bidding, which Grant expects will be enough to get the job done. One officer who does not have automatic admiration for the colonel is Major Henry Kendall (William Holden), a doctor who marches to the beat of his medical profession first and the orders of the army second. Along the way the brigade encounters the calculatedly charming Confederate maiden Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) who’s honey and molasses to their faces but who eavesdrops on their plans and attempts to get word to the unsuspecting Confederates that the Union army is closer than they suspect. Marlowe has no choice but to take her and her slave girl (Althea Gibson) along as the troops encounter several dangerous obstacles in attempting to carry out their mission.
The first half of the movie finds director Ford dawdling along without mounting much forward momentum as the lengthy sojourn with Southern belle Hannah brings things to a standstill, and her continual attempts to escape or cause trouble don’t help those craving action or a greater sense of danger. All of that changes in the second half, however, as Ford mounts a succession of exciting and beautifully directed set pieces. The Newton Station surprise assault is the film’s best action sequence as the Confederates believe they’re handing the Union a giant surprise only to be themselves surprised in an ambush. With just enough violence to keep things real but without rubbing our faces in the carnage, the scene is rousing. A later attack at a bridge where a full on charge leads to heavy casualties on both sides is also grandly staged and shot. Comedy inserted in the picture is more uneven, however. Ford allows Denver Pyle and Strother Martin to overact like crazy as two Rebel deserters who think they’ll be rewarded for their capture of a Confederate officer, and a late sequence where the Jefferson Military Academy for boys is set in motion to defend the South is well directed but seems to be jarringly placed too late in the picture interrupting the real dramatic danger of the Army’s position at a time when comic relief is the last thing the movie needs. True to the masculine-fueled tone of the piece, an off-screen male chorus sings “I Left My Love” (composed for the movie) along with period songs such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” adding an effective if slightly stagy feel to the movie.
John Wayne gets top billing and the lion’s share of screen time as the tough, no-nonsense colonel who’ll not be dissuaded from his mission no matter the danger or cost to his men. William Holden’s character is a fascinating one, but he’s at the mercy of screenwriters John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin who don’t give him the screen time necessary for his side of the story. Holden’s sardonic ease certainly holds its own against Wayne’s more intense swagger with both men complementing the other in terms of the film’s story and character development. Constance Towers was “introduced” in the film even though she had appeared a good bit on television and in a few minor films prior to this one. She attempts a drawly Southern accent as Hannah Hunter, but the cadence is wrong, and the accent comes and goes with alarming frequency especially in moments of pique. Willis Bouchey maintains the running gag as a Union officer who sees his role in this famous mission as a stepping stone to political office (with the offices growing bigger with every successful mile of the journey). Judson Pratt gets his share of lighter moments as the prone-to-drunkenness Sergeant Major Kirby though some late film heroics do him proud. Carleton Young displays a great deal of tact and dignity as a Southern colonel bested by the Union.
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is presented in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The presentation is a mixed one throughout. At its best, the image boasts excellent color and engaging sharpness, enough to make out extreme facial features and the textures of wood, rock, and other natural objects. Flesh tones are variable throughout, sometimes accurate and other times a bit too brown. There are dust specks to be seen early and then on occasion throughout the movie, and there is an occasional haze over the image, too. Black levels vary from poor to good, and sharpness varies as well. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound mix seems a bit low in volume (easily remedied), and it is pretty much what one would expect of a soundtrack from this era. Dialogue is usually well recorded and presented but occasional music and/or sound effects can drown it out sometimes. To its credit, the audio track is not burdened by age-related artifacts like hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter, so the presentation is a clean one.
The film’s theatrical trailer is presented in 1080p and runs for 2 ¾ minutes.
3.5/5 (not an average)
Certainly not the greatest joint effort for the Johns Wayne and Ford, but The Horse Soldiers is an eminently watchable movie with a second half that’s exciting and excellently sustained. As one of the top fifteen grossing movies of 1959, The Horse Soldiers is a film that fans of Ford, Wayne, or William Holden should be happy to own despite an almost nonexistent bonus feature package.