John Ford elevated the western from sturdy B-picture to bona fide art form with his 1939 film Stagecoach, and would build a career on westerns that transcended genre conventions and explored human nature like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ford’s 1959 film The Horse Soldiers is not one of those films.
His only full-length crack at a Civil War film, The Horse Soldiers features a steady directorial hand and several impressive action set pieces, but with so many great Ford pictures to choose from, it’s doubtful this one will be coming of the shelf too often.
John Wayne stars as Col. John Marlowe, the leader of a Union cavalry brigade tasked with going behind enemy lines to destroy a railroad depot. He’s saddled with the presence of Major Henry Kendall (William Holden), a surgeon who immediately finds himself on Marlowe’s bad side, with the two butting heads at almost every turn.
When the brigade stops at the house of a feisty Southern belle named Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers), she eavesdrops and hears their plan of attack, forcing them to bring her along lest she give them up to the enemy.
The film plods along, not gaining much momentum until it hits an action sequence. Wayne and Holden’s bickering occasionally gives rise to some interesting moments, and Wayne delivers a stern, completely typical performance that hits the right notes. Still, his character is seemingly slapped together, with a confession late in the film about his antipathy toward Kendall (it has to do with the previous failing of a doctor in his life) serving as some truly shallow character psychology.
Towers is also a grating presence as a character inserted mainly for her romantic potential, which of course gets realized in the closing moments, against all odds. Towers would go on to be an electrifying presence in Sam Fuller’s pulpy Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss several years later, but here, her lousy accent and whiny demeanor does nothing but detract.
The Horse Soldiers was a solid commercial success, but Ford was apparently dissatisfied with the finished product. It’s a perfectly acceptable movie, but stacked up against much of his filmography, it’s not hard to see why he felt that way.
The Blu-ray Disc
The Horse Soldiers is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The disc’s most noticeable improvement over DVD is in its color quality, with reds, oranges, greens and blues all coming off bold and vibrant throughout the film. Other areas aren’t quite as impressive, as the image tends to be kind of soft on a regular basis, and is often littered with stray scratches and flecks. Viewers bothered by heavy grain are going to really hate this disc, as grain is almost always readily apparent. I’m glad MGM didn’t try to DNR away any of the grain (although that’s likely more of a cost/effort result than any kind of film purism), but there are times when the grain still looks like noise. Overall, this is a solid upgrade.
Audio is presented in a mono DTS-HD Master Audio track that gets the job done just fine with no major fidelity issues.
Just the theatrical trailer, presented in 1080p.
The Bottom Line
There are plenty of Ford films that deserved a Blu-ray upgrade before this one, but for fans of the film, it’s certainly worth picking up.