Thursday, July 14, 2016

The History of John Ford: The Horse Soldiers

When Orson Welles was asked what movies he studied before embarking on directing Citizen Kane he replied, "I studied the Old Masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." 

Running parallel with our series about Akira Kurosawa ("Walking Kurosawa's Road"), we're running a series of pieces about the closest thing America has to Kurosawa in artistry—director John Ford. Ford rarely made films set in the present day, but (usually) made them about the past...and about America's past, specifically (when he wasn't fulfilling a passion for his Irish roots). 

In "The History of John Ford" we'll be gazing fondly at the work of this American Master, who started in the Silent Era, learning his craft, refining his director's eye, and continuing to work deep into the 1960's (and his 70's) to produce the greatest body of work of any American "picture-maker," America's storied film-maker, the irascible, painterly, domineering, sentimental puzzle that was John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.

The Horse Soldiers (John Ford, 1959) Ford made few Civil War dramas—he preferred seeing the Nation being built than coming apart at the seams—and The Horse Soldiers is more of a small skirmish movie, remarkably free of battles, but more of undercover work—and one battle that is notorious in Civil War history. That anyone might think of it as anti-war—how could it with John Wayne, and a decade before it became fashionable—would mean that they had to by-pass the promotional material and actually watch the thing.

But, the older Ford, seeing the tight studio-hold begin to lighten as they began to lose power to television, might have thought that it was time to speak truth to legend. For the legend, he would go to Ireland, but in the 1960's and 1970's, he went back to his film-making roots, dug them up out of the desert scrap and examined a little more closely the truth behind some of his earlier films and the history of the country. He would present the weeds along with the garden.

Ford's framing takes a cue from Matthew Brady's daguerrotypes
The Horse Soldiers is based on history—the track of Col. Benjamin Grierson to de-stabilize supply routes to the Confederate forces, but the players are all fiction. Wayne plays Colonel John Marlowe, a railroad engineer, who uses his experience to find the weak points along rail routes—spending his time in war destroying what he might have built in the peace. 
He is sent into the heart of the South to Tennessee and Mississippi on a route to Baton Rouge, with the main purpose to destroy a depot at Newton's Station that will cut off supplies to forces at Vicksburg. Marlowe's troop does a lot of skulking around trying to avoid detection by the Confederates, their mission is undercover, but that is a tough prospect commanding 1700 men, all dressed in blue.
Wayne out front, checking the progress of Confederates while his are concealed behind trees.
A troop behind enemy lines finds it tough to have their own supplies ferried to them if they want to avoid detection, so part of the mission is to raid local plantations, use the grounds as bivouac, and "commandeer" supplies, frequently "under protest." One of those so affected is the Greenbriar plantation, being overseen by Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) and her remaining slave Lukey (tennis champ Althea Gibson). Although gracious to a fiddle-dee-dee, and outwardly manipulative, Miss Hunter holds great antipathy towards the Yankees, remains loyal to the South, and when it's been discovered—by the ever-mindful "saw-bones" Hank Kendall (William Holden)—that she's been listening (via fireplace vents) to the secret plans of the troop, Marlowe has no choice but to take her and Lukey on the campaign, lest she betray them to "Johnny Reb." That just makes her more resentful, causing clashes between her and Marlowe.
Anybody familiar with Ford films knows that such a situation can lead to an ambiguously heartfelt relationship—Marlowe and Hunter fall into a chaste yearning relationship, through a combination of her seeing the effects of battle on both sides rather than holding to an ideological ideal, and his being besieged from all sides—from his superiors and from his own men, including a begrudgingly supportive one from Kendall, on top of having to battle the Confederates, who at the late stage of the war are desperate enough to throw whatever they can at him, including children from a military academy.
Her protests, her new-found vulnerability in danger, and her work tending the wounded, cut through the Wayne crust and probably seem like a comfort amidst the rest of his situation. In the movie, that relationship doesn't play well, sadly, through no fault of Towers—she's great in this film (she usually is), able to bring up the fire that Ford's favorite, Maureen O'Hara, brought to his films and Ford would use her again in his next, Sergeant Rutledge—but Wayne isn't up to his part, managing the quaint courtliness required, but not the vulnerability needed to make it pay off, falling back on a shyness that runs counter to the character's actions, or to Wayne's strengths as an actor.
Marlowe finds Southern deserters in the form of Denver Pyle and Strother Martin
who act and look like they dropped in from a future Sam Peckinpah movie.
Holden's role as a conscientious objector/surgeon who frequently clashes with Wayne over the troop's actions is also a bit under-developed. Look, this is William Holden here. He's one of the few male actors who could stand up to Wayne and by wily enough to not get blown off the screen. But, the character, while of some interest and giving Holden a uniform to fill, doesn't serve much of a point other than to be an irritant, something the movie already has plenty of. To that point, it seems a weakness of the film that Wayne's Marlowe is constantly under the gun and presented with no-win scenarios that reach the breaking point when he must command his troop to fire on civilians.
That slaughter leads to an extended scene in a bar where Marlowe gets drunk and lets down the reserve that has kept him going through what he'd earlier described as "this insanity." It's a powerful scene, even if one gets the sense that Wayne isn't fully committed to it. He can rail all he wants, but there's no sense of release or breaking here, again, not one of Wayne's strengths, as he tends to be at his most powerful in moments of stillness or circumspect emotion. Wayne is at his best when he's not "making a scene," but being the most powerful thread in a fabric.
This is not the John Ford of The Cavalry Trilogy, where one might snatch some phyrric victory out of defeat. There are no scenes of triumph in the film, and the scenes of battle have a bitter tinge to them: one is based on the Battle of New Market in which Union soldiers fought Southern forces that were joined by VMI cadets—children, really—which occurred on March 15, 1864. Ford mines it for irony, pathos, and some odd insertions of comedy for a situation that is so jingoistic that it is horrific and absurd simultaneously. That it is true, well, that is insanity.
The Horse Soldiers was filmed in vibrant color by William Clothier, who'd been working since 1923, but only in the 1950's did he start coming into his own as a director of photography for such directors as John Ford and William Wellman. He became John Wayne's favorite cinematographer and was renowned for masterful location work. The Horse Soldiers is one of his best, but the film fell into neglect and disrepair until restoration for Blu-Ray release suddenly revealed its stunning imagery and eye-popping color done under the direction of Ford.

I'd seen The Horse Soldiers before, but seeing it restored is like seeing it for the first time.
One of the most memorable sequences of The Horse Soldiers-
The Battle of New Market. Both funny and sad simultaneously. 
The poster of this clip cut out Anna Lee taking her kid out of the procession, 
despite his whining protests.

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