The Guns of Newton Station
"The Horse Soldiers" is a nicely made movie with some nice moments of action and a simmering tension between John Wayne and William Holden as Col. John Marlowe and Maj. Henry Kendall and to be honest you expect nothing less from director John Ford. But the trouble is that the story of a bunch of Union soldiers going deep into Confederate territory to try and blow up a train and the supply network is not that brilliant even if it does take its lead from the history books and the true story of Col. Benjamin Grierson who lead such a daring raid. It's not that it is dull in fact the various difficulties that these soldiers encounter a long the way which include having to take a Southern lady prisoner are entertaining but they are also quite forgettable especially when compared to the other westerns which John Ford and John Wayne collaborated on.
With the Union coming under increasing pressure from the Confederates a troop lead by Col. John Marlowe (John Wayne - The Searchers) are given the mission to enter enemy territory and destroy Newton station, the hub of the Confederates supply network. It's a dangerous mission and Col. Marlowe is not impressed when he discovers doctor Maj. Henry Kendall (William Holden - Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing) is assigned to his troop as he holds a deep loathing of the medical profession. And to make matters worse there mission is compromised when Southern Belle Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar (Constance Towers - A Perfect Murder) over hears critical information about their mission and Marlowe is forced to take her along as a prisoner.
Watching "The Horse Soldiers" now it is very easy to see a formula going on with the mission on enemy ground to blow up a critical element of their battle plan. It is the very same formula which became common place in WWII movies such as "The Guns of Navarone" and "They Who Dare". And as such because of this recognizable formula "The Horse Soldiers" is on one hand a little obvious, you know that the journey into enemy territory will be full of danger and encounters with the enemy and the attempt to get out after attacking the supply line will be just as perilous. There may not be the covert ops which featured in the WWII movies with instead the Union soldiers facing danger face on but that formula is ever present and for me is part of the reason why "The Horse Soldiers" struggles a little.
But there is more to "The Horse Soldiers" than just this formula and we have the tension between Col. John Marlowe and medic Maj. Henry Kendall as Marlowe has a dislike of the medical profession and as such is less than thrilled to be saddled with a quack on his mission. Of course there is a reason why Marlowe detests doctors and as such dislikes Kendall and it all becomes very clear further on in the movie. But this element does add that extra element as the tension between them leads to arguments and inevitably boils right over into a fight.
Also adding a little extra to the story is having Marlowe taking Southern Belle Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar prisoner when she is caught listening in to the Col. explaining the mission to his officers. It adds some much needed and in many ways expected lightness as Hannah flirts with Marlowe as well as ending up getting soaked a few times. Unfortunately this side of things ends up becoming a rather annoying romantic cliche and part of the reason why the ending goes out with barely a whimper let alone a bang.
In many ways "The Horse Soldiers" is a big movie, a big John Ford Western with brilliant landscapes and some nice action scenes but sadly it lacks the big performances. Both John Wayne and William Holden come across as doing just enough, delivering their lines but not their characters and it ends up making both Marlowe and Kendall very flat. In John Wayne's case he's not helped by playing a variation of the military man he did in so many civil war movies but there is nothing to make Col. Marlowe feel unique. As for Constance Towers who brings some humour as Miss Hannah Hunter well it does feel like she has been partly cast because she is attractive and can deliver the forlorn look of a woman taken prisoner but at least she makes Hannah more than just another flat generic character.
What this all boils down to is that whilst a solid Civil War western "The Horse Soldiers" is also quite forgettable. There is now a familiarity to the storyline of the mission behind enemy lines and there is little to make it feel unique. Even the performances of John Wayne and William Holden fail to make it feel any more original and with out Constance Towers bringing a pleasant touch of lightness to the drama it could have been even more forgettable.