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"Doctor, war isn't exactly a civilized business."
on 24 June 2011
The Horse Soldiers is usually damned with faint praise as one of John Ford's lesser Westerns, especially compared to his famed cavalry trilogy. It's not hard to understand why: despite the big budget and substantial resources it's more an okay film than a particularly good one, hobbled by a clumsily manufactured central conflict that simply doesn't ring true and a few too many plot turns that go nowhere. John Wayne is the ex-railroad engineer turned Union colonel sent behind Confederate lines to destroy their railroad tracks to disrupt their supply lines, which should be enough for a decent Western, but the film takes an early turn into the desperately contrived by having him take an instant dislike to William Holden's surgeon who has been foisted upon him - not because of a clash of personalities, which might make sense, but because he thinks doctors are charlatans using soldiers to experiment on... You can guess why he has that view long before he drunkenly reveals it, but the only way that it could have generated any real dramatic sparks if is Holden had been the doctor concerned instead of a nice guy who just rubs the Duke up the wrong way.
You know they'll eventually learn to respect each other but the scriptwriters can't really build any real drama out of such shaky foundations, and since they're also the producers there's no-one to tell them to go back and think about it some more, reducing Wayne to the usual default by-the-numbers grumpy and obstinate persona of his lesser pictures and Holden an amiable figure more bemused than frustrated by him. So to up the ante a little they have Wayne forced to take Constance Towers and her faithful slave Althea Gibson prisoner after they learn his plans, with the inevitable romance slowly brewing. In fact, much of what happens in The Horse Soldiers takes it's time to brew and it certainly never really comes to the boil. There are some good moments, like the battle at a railway depot, but others, like the threat of having to fight against children from a local military academy, are dodged because everyone just behaves too gallantly for this particular war. (The final battle sequence was also scaled down after the death of stuntman Fred Kennedy in a horse fall.) Still, you do get to see Hank Worden made up to look like Abe Lincoln's cousin and cinematographer William C. Clothier makes it look good, especially when Ford is filling the screen with men and riders, though it doesn't look quite as good as it should on a rather disappointing DVD transfer that's a definite step down from the old laser disc release and will hopefully have been remastered properly for Bluray. There are a few bits of print damage too, while the original captions identifying the locations have been removed and replaced with computer generated ones for the Region 2 DVD, which does at last include a brief trailer as an extra. MGM/UA's region-free Bluray apparently only has a longer trailer as extra with only marginally improved picture quality.