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“I sent my love a letter/She will find me in the U.S. Calvary,” sing the Union soldiers, and under the leadership of Colonel Marlow (John Wayne) they are headed for the Confederacy in The Horse Soldiers, released on Blu-ray on May 10th by MGM/20th Century Fox. Directed by John Ford and taken from the book by Harold Sinclair, this film brings to life “men who fought and died in a bloody war” in “one of the most daring cavalry exploits in history.” Forced by the South to a virtual standstill, the North tries to make a trek of 35 miles or more a day with Colonel Marlow receiving assistance from Doctor Kendall (William Holden), also a surgeon in the field.
Along the road to the Union Calvary Depot in La Grange, Tennessee, Colonel Marlow stops his troops at a plantation, owned by Miss Hanna Hunter (Constance Towers) who afford him and his men Southern hospitality even though they’re the enemy, hoping to learn their plans so that she can convey them to the Confederate militia. Caught spying on them, Miss Hunter and her maid Lukey (Althea Gibson) must then ride along with the troops on horseback, with Miss Hunter attempting to escape numerous times. Later, however, she is overwhelmed, seeing the machinations of war – so many wounded, and surgeries consisting of pouring whiskey over a table for sterilization before amputating a leg while giving the man a small tree branch to clench between his teeth.
Marlow, whose background is in railroad engineering, holds a grudge against doctors himself, whom he feels caused the death of his wife with their “experimentations.” Miss Hunter had heretofore only seen her father die peacefully in his own bed, without pain. Of course there’s an attraction between such opposites, but how can they bond when they’re enemies?
Marlow’s troops disable Newton Station, which was supporting Confederate forces, though not without a surprise attack by the South. Marlow decides to head to Baton Rouge, 300 miles away, and asks his soldiers, “How many men does it take to keep one lone female quiet?” But after the death of her maid Lukey and witnessing many soldiers on both sides die, Miss Hunter changes and even helps Doctor Kendall tend to the wounded and dying. Marlow and Kendall’s tensions mount so quickly that they even try to punch each other out, but their war duties soon bring them back to their senses. Even when Marlow’s soldiers ride into a trap he disdains the idea of an honorable surrender.
The Horse Soldiers is the kind of genre movie made in the late 50s that historical buffs will particularly enjoy, and who can doubt the combination of the greats, John Wayne and William Holden? “Thank God I won’t be the cause of hurting you anymore because it happens I’m in love with you,” Colonel Marlow tells the formerly stubborn and spoiled Miss Hunter, but what will happen to their love? The Horse Soldiers gives us a glimpse of what it must be have been like during the Civil War (which was actually, afterwards, the beginning of Memorial Day celebrations) and for that reason alone it’s a compelling film to see.
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