The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Dir. John Ford. Starring John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers

The standout sequence of The Horse Soldiers is about the cadets of the Jefferson Military Academy, which is to say that the best part of this movie about Marlowe (Wayne) and Kendall (Holden) has very little to do with either one of them. In a desperate attempt to slow Marlowe’s cavalry, a Confederate courier raises the boys of the Jefferson Military Academy as well as their commandant, the Reverend (Basil Ruysdael), an old man who must walk with a stick. The Reverend is understandably hesitant to put his students in the field; the average age of those little ones is younger even than the famous VMI cadets at New Market. Yet he is ordered, and the next day he marches out with a parade of middle schoolers in their bright gray uniforms. Two boys must remain behind with towels wrapped around their jaws; they have the mumps. An insert, one of the rare ones in this chapter full of wide shots, shows them looking on sadly. They want to go too, and we’re meant to understand that they feel left out in this adventure. But they look so young, and they have one of those classic childhood diseases, and there they are in their pajamas and it could not be more plain that the rest of the boys look like that in their PJs too.

It’s a haunting, lingering scene, and what follows immediately is a scene in which the boys parade through the town. They are small but they look smart. One of their mothers (Anna Lee) comes forward to beg the Reverend for her son: she’s lost his father, his uncles, his brothers, and cannot spare this youngest child. The Reverend excuses the drummer boy from service with a grim, methodical air, although the way he leaves the line is anything but dignified. The boy’s mother has to drag him bodily past her fence and into the house, while all the while he hangs on for dear life against anything that might let him continue marching off to war with his classmates. All of this sounds terribly calculated, and of course it is. It’s John Ford, one of the masters of editing a movie in his head before he shot the film itself. If this were a movie made even five or six years later, like Andrew V. McLaglen’s Shenandoah, it’s possible that he might have even let the boys die. Instead, the exploits of the JMA lads are slightly hilarious instead. The drummer boy announces his intention to run away from home and join the battle with a shot of the drum rolling pell-mell down a hill, followed by its peewee player sprinting after it. (His mother opens a window and calls out to him…now that he’s at a distance, the boy doesn’t even look back.) Once in combat, lined up for what should be certain death in a frontal assault, the boys run all out at the Union lines. Loath to fire upon children, even children with guns who are unloading their rifles at them, the cavalrymen stop laughing and start running. After watching this unfold—that drummer boy, incidentally, is captured by a Union soldier and advised by Kendall to spank him—the JMA students don’t appear again.

The Horse Soldiers, in other words, is not that kind of movie. It could be a movie about the cruelty of war, in this case a war which has not even seen Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, the Overland Campaign, or the Atlanta campaign, but still the children are being called out to fight men. I was ready to watch these boys gunned down by the toughened soldiers of Marlowe’s cavalry, and instead I got Ford’s replacement for the more characteristic barroom brawl. It is the kind of movie which gestures at psychological cruelty far more than physical cruelty. It’s not about the loss of the JMA boys but that they, by rights, should have been lost, that everyone expected them to be lost, and that to some extent it seems that they wanted to be lost. They walk out stoically from their barracks, and Ford takes some care not to show us too much of their faces; height, not fresh-facedness, is the primary visual indicator that they are too young to be fighting. In the barracks, they’re kids; outside of it they’re soldiers of the Confederate States of America, defending the Cause which Ulysses S. Grant described as “one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”

The death wish of Confederate soldiers is evidenced in Colonel Miles (Carleton Young), a West Point graduate who’s lost one arm for the South already and has the foresight to call for reinforcements by train to Newton Station when he finds out that Marlowe’s command is practically on top of him. Miles, like the Joker, wanted to get caught, but the attempt to take back Newton Station is foiled. By the time Miles and a small group are charging an entrenched Yankee position, it’s clear that his plan has failed, and still Miles keeps moving, picking up the battle flag from the dust. It requires Kendall running out from the Union side and punching Miles to get him to stop a clearly suicidal advance. When Miles picks up the flag, he does so in a shot which basically elides his opposition; he is seen in profile, and he is Ford’s dust-covered Delacroix. When Kendall, who knew Miles from the regular army, comes out to strike him down and save his life, we see the guns pointed directly at Miles.

The relative honor of the Confederacy is in question here. The film asks us to admire Miles’ gallantry in much the same way it asks us to admire the thin-lipped bravery of the cadets; they understand fully what’s supposed to happen to them, and they stare death in the eye and dare him to blink first. But the film also suggests that context makes all of this bravery and élan into sheer lunacy. Put a single mother into the frame and her preteen son is recalled from duty. Put the barrels of Union guns on a defeated amputee and the idea of throwing one’s life away for a symbolic gesture looks as stupid as it sounds. This is the John Ford who made Judge Priest twenty-five years earlier and remade Judge Priest earlier in the decade as The Sun Shines Bright. Both films, in surprisingly different ways, allow Ford to talk out of both sides of his mouth. Superficially, there’s a thrill for the Confederacy, a yeehaw of excitement for its iconography and its figures. With context, it all feels pretty empty, even immoral. One of the film’s bravest characters is Lukey, a slave played by Althea Gibson who follows Hannah (Towers) from the plantation that Marlowe’s cavalry appropriates. (Gibson, sort of like Woody Strode or Ward Bond or even John Wayne, is in a long line of unexpected Ford actors who were athletes before they ever got to the big screen.) While the Confederate boys or Colonel Miles survive, Lukey does not. Confederate troopers shoot her because she’s in the same train as the cavalry. The Horse Soldiers is a film which works best when it’s about personal sacrifices. Kendall’s sacrifice at the end of the film is a profound one. Lukey dying because she didn’t want to leave Hannah to the theoretical mercies of the Yankees is not profound because of a choice; she doesn’t throw herself in front of bullets or anything like that. But Lukey’s death is a profound moment in the film because it vilifies the Confederate soldiers. First Lukey is enslaved, and then Lukey, defenseless, is shot down.

At the end of the film, there are enough Union cavalrymen who have been wounded and who cannot be moved that they must be left behind. The main body will arrive in glory in Baton Rouge (or so we assume, because the film ends on a very different note) and the men who have been hit will be captured and sent, in their various states of incapacity, to a military prison. The guess is Andersonville, which remains notorious to the present day for its horrifically bad conditions; fear of being captured and sent there is practically palpable throughout the film for Marlowe’s men. Kendall, who has acted on his own initiative throughout the movie, much to Marlowe’s annoyance, chooses to act on his initiative one more time. As Marlowe’s men wire the bridge to blow so they cannot be followed, Kendall informs Marlowe that he intends to remain with the wounded no matter what. Here is the sobering moment that Ford holds back from with Miles and with the JMA cadets. For the losers, sacrifice is part and parcel of defeat. For the victors, sacrifice is a more difficult concept to swallow. Marlowe, for all of the blustering that Wayne does in this film, sacrifices fairly little over the course of the campaign. Given that Marlowe was a railroad engineer in civilian life, there’s actually something pleasantly ironic about his complaining that he wants to build bridges, not blow them up. But Kendall, a military doctor from the first, someone who might consider his own death in combat but cannot really expect it the same way that his patients from the front line must, is giving himself up in the moment of triumph. As Marlowe rides off, Kendall can do nothing but wait with a wan smile for the Confederates to pick him up and send him to frightening privations. Victory, we discover, is not an idea which wastes much of its time on individuals.

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