Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Horse Soldiers

I originally saw The Horse Soldiers (1959) when I was a boy, and several powerful images from the movie have always stayed with me. Shot after shot of a seemingly endless parade of soldiers on horseback are a glorious reminder of how movies were made in the days before CGI. This movie is not quite in the same league as John Ford's epic Cavalry Trilogy (Fort Apache, Rio Bravo and the majestic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), but it is nevertheless a stirring look at the role the "horse soldiers" played in the Civil War. John Wayne plays a Yankee colonel who, in civilian life, was a railroad engineer, a "section hand," as William Holden derisively refers to him. Holden plays a doctor with the rank of major. Wayne refers to him equally derisively as "Croaker" and seems to have it in for Holden's character from the very first scene in which they are introduced. The reason for this, we later find out, is because Wayne's young bride was killed by a doctor who operated on her after misdiagnosing a tumor. The major conflict in the story is between these two men, and not between the Blue and the Gray. In this version of the Civil War, Yankee and Confederate officers treat one another with utmost civility and courtesy. The same, unfortunately, does not hold true for the plantation-owning character played by Constance Towers. She is perfectly willing to act as a spy and inform on Wayne's escape route to the Confederates. Wayne and Towers end up falling in love with one another, a real surprise given the fact that they basically bicker and argue with one another for most of the movie. All this, of course, is a disguise for what is really going on between them. The two don't show any physical affection until the very end of the movie. This is obviously reminiscent of the courtly romance between Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Cathy Downs in John Ford's My Darling Clementine. It also prefigures another courtly romance between John Wayne and Marion McCargo in Andrew V. McLaglen's The Undefeated (1969). This turns out to be an underrated gem of a movie that deals with some of the same thematic material as Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee. The movie seems hopelessly old-fashioned when compared with Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, which was released in the same year (along with George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). But taken on its own merits, The Undefeated is still a rousing piece of entertainment. It features cinematography that perfectly captures the story's beautifully composed Mexican landscapes, and there is definite chemistry between Wayne and co-star Rock Hudson, as former Civil War rivals now forced to work together in order to negotiate a tricky business deal with the Mexican rebels and their French overlords. In The Horse Soldiers and The Undefeated, Wayne subtlely defines what it means to be a man. And at a time where there seems to be a dearth of role models, Wayne's courtly attitude towards women seems, in retrospect, tender and touching.

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