Release Date(s)1959 (June 14, 2022)
Studio(s)The Mirisch Company/United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
The Horse Soldiers is an underrated Western from director John Ford, set during the Vicksburg Campaign in the American Civil War. Despite the fact that Ford had a lifelong fascination with the War Between the States, it ended up being his only Western set during that period (though he did end up directing the Civil War segment of How the West Was Won a few years later). The Horse Soldiers was based on the novel of the same name by Harold Sinclair, which was inspired by Grierson’s Raid. In 1863, Col. Benjamin Grierson had been tasked with drawing attention away from the Union’s siege of Vicksburg. So, he led 1,700 cavalry men deep into Confederate territory, wreaking havoc on local infrastructure along the way, all while suffering negligible casualties.
Screenwriters John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin’s adaptation of Sinclair’s fictionalized book centers on Col. Marlowe (John Wayne), who has been given the mission to provide the diversion. Against his better judgment, he’s saddled with a regimental surgeon, Major Kendall (William Holden), and the two don’t see eye-to-eye. The conflict between them is exacerbated when they stop at a plantation and are reluctantly forced to take two captives along with them: the plantation mistress Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers), as well as her house slave Lukey (tennis star Althea Gibson, in her only feature film role). Their presence ends up only increasing the risks of the mission, as well as increasing the tensions between Marlowe and Kendall. The Horse Soldiers also stars Ken Curtis, Hoot Gibson, Hank Worden, Denver Pyle, and Strother Martin.
The Horse Soldiers isn’t as well-regarded as many other Ford Westerns, but it’s an essential step on the journey that his Westerns had taken over several decades. His films were becoming increasingly more sympathetic toward Native Americans, and by the standards of the day, The Horse Soldiers was fairly sympathetic towards African-Americans as well. Unlike many other filmmakers working in the Western genre, Ford was no “lost cause” enthusiast, and he was actually somewhat progressive, in his stubbornly old-school way. Ford may have been a curmudgeon, but his sympathies extended behind the camera as well. Most of The Horse Soldiers was shot on location in Louisiana and Mississippi, but Ford insisted on shooting Gibson’s scenes in Hollywood, so that she wouldn’t be forced to stay in segregated housing. He also insisted on paying the local black extras the same rate as the whites. Most interestingly, Ford even deferred to Gibson when she objected to the exaggerated black dialect for her character in the script, and so he had her dialogue rewritten.
Unfortunately, The Horse Soldiers wasn’t an entirely happy production. Wayne and Holden earned record-breaking salaries to star in the film, and there were other budgetary problems along the way. Ford wasn’t enthusiastic about the script, so he improvised some scenes such as the ones involving the boys from the Confederate military academy. All of those difficulties paled next to the tragic death of stuntperson Fred Kennedy, who broke his neck late in the shooting schedule while performing a fall from a horse. The incident affected Ford so deeply that he halted the location shooting, and he never filmed his intended conclusion where Marlowe’s cavalry arrives in Baton Rouge. As a result, The Horse Soldiers ends rather abruptly, and on an uncharacteristically ambiguous note for a Ford film. Yet given the resurgence of “lost cause” mythology over the last few years, that ambiguity feels more appropriate than ever. Some struggles never seem to come to an end.
Cinematographer William Clothier shot The Horse Soldiers on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Kino Lorber bills this release as utilizing a “brand new 4K master,” though it appears to have used a scan from an interpositive, rather than from the original negative. The level of fine detail is adequate, with optical effects like titles or dissolves looking understandably much softer. (The latter are oddly inconsistent—most of them affect the entire leading and trailing shots, but a few were actually cut into those shots, so they don’t affect the surrounding material.) There’s minor damage here and there, mostly in the form of speckling and light scratches, and there’s also a bit of instability throughout. The contrast is strong, and the black levels are good, but some of the shadow detail has been lost—at times, the darker Union uniforms end up looking blank and featureless. On the other hand, the color grade is generally good. Despite any flaws, it’s still a slight but noticeable improvement over the 2011 MGM Blu-ray. That version, which was inexplicably reframed at 1.66:1, had some sharpening applied that had the side effect of coarsening the grain to objectionable levels. The grain in this release looks much better by comparison.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. While there’s a bit of background hiss audible at times, it’s an otherwise clean track, with clear dialogue. The overall fidelity is a bit limited, but the score from David Buttolph sounds fine.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of The Horse Soldiers includes a slipcover duplicating the artwork on the insert, as well as the following extras:
- Audio Commentary by Joseph McBride
- The Horse Soldiers Trailer (HD – 2:39)
- Legend of the Lost Trailer (SD – 3:43)
- Brannigan Trailer (HD – 2:23)
- The Devil's Brigade Trailer (SD – 3:47)
- The Revengers Trailer (Upscaled HD – 2:10)
Joseph McBride is the author of the biography Searching for John Ford, and he also co-wrote the critical study John Ford along with Michael Wellington. While he doesn’t consider The Horse Soldiers to be one of Ford’s greatest films, he calls it a lesson on what a great director can do with a lesser script and a troubled production. McBride points out some of the flaws that he finds in the film, including the awkward romance between Wayne and Constance Towers, and the fact that the script never clarifies that the real purpose of Marlowe’s mission was to provide a diversion. Thankfully, he doesn’t dwell on those issues too much; instead, he spends more time detailing the troubled production, explaining the real-life history behind the fictional story, and giving biographical information about the participants. He ends by covering the tragic death of stuntman Fred Kennedy, and how it affected the film, as well as Ford himself. It’s a solid commentary track that acknowledges the issues in the film, while never losing sight of its strengths.
The Horse Soldiers may indeed have its flaws, but it’s still a worthy addition to the John Ford canon, and an important step in the progression of his filmography. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray does offer marginal improvements over the previous MGM disc, and the addition of McBride’s commentary is another selling point. Owners of the old Blu-ray will have to decide for themselves if that’s enough to justify the upgrade, but for those who don’t, this Kino Lorber release is an essential pickup for fans of John Ford.
- Stephen Bjork