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The Horse Soldiers

The Horse Soldiers
1959 movie poster
Directed by John Ford
Produced by John Lee Mahin
Martin Rackin
Written by John Lee Mahin (screenplay)
Martin Rackin (screenplay)
Harold Sinclair (novel)
Starring John Wayne
William Holden
Constance Towers
Althea Gibson
Music by David Buttolph
Cinematography William H. Clothier
Edited by Jack Murray
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • June 12, 1959 (1959-06-12)
Running time 115 min.
Country United States
Language English
Box office $4 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[1]
Horse Soldiers (2009) is also a book written by Doug Stanton

The Horse Soldiers is a 1959 film set during the American Civil War. It was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne, William Holden, and Constance Towers. John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin produced the movie and wrote its screenplay.

The film was loosely based on Harold Sinclair's novel of the same name, which in turn drew from the true story of Grierson's Raid and the climactic Battle of Newton's Station. In April 1863, Colonel Benjamin Grierson led 1700 Illinois and Iowa soldiers from LaGrange, Tennessee to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, through several hundred miles of enemy territory, to destroy railroad and supply lines between Newton's Station and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grierson's raid was part of the Vicksburg campaign, culminating in the Battle of Vicksburg.[2] The disruption of the Confederate-controlled railroad upset the plans and troop deployments of Confederate General John C. Pemberton. General William Tecumseh Sherman reportedly considered Grierson's daring mission "the most brilliant of the war".[3]


  • Plot summary 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Historical accuracy 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Plot summary

A Union cavalry brigade, led by Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne), is sent on a raid behind Confederate lines to destroy a railroad and supply depot at Newton Station. Ironically, before the war, Marlowe had been a railroad building engineer. With the troop is a new regimental surgeon, Major Henry Kendall (William Holden) who seems to be constantly at odds with his commander. Kendall is torn between duty and the horror of war.

Complicating matters, while the unit rests at Greenbriar Plantation, Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers), the plantation's mistress, and her slave Lukey (Althea Gibson) eavesdrop on a staff meeting wherein Marlowe discusses his plans. To protect the mission, Marlowe is forced to take the two women with him. Initially hostile to her Yankee captor, Miss Hunter gradually warms to him. In addition to Kendall and Miss Hunter, Marlowe also must contend with Col. Phil Secord (Willis Bouchey), who continually second-guesses Marlowe's orders and command decisions.

Several battles later, including a fire-fight which results in the death of Lukey, and a skirmish with Boy Cadets from a local military school (based on the real-life Battle of New Market), and with Confederate forces in pursuit, Marlowe and his command reach a bridge which must be stormed in order to access the Union lines. Dr. Kendall is forced to choose between remaining behind with some badly wounded men (and being captured with them), or leaving the men without medical care until the Confederates arrive. Marlowe, wounded, is able to lead his troops over the bridge after they have set charges under it. First, he lights the fuse and the bridge blows up to halt the Confederates once again. He and his command continue on to their destination having successfully completed their mission.



Exterior scenes were filmed in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, along the banks of Cane River Lake, and in and around Natchez, Mississippi.[4] A bridge was built over the Cane River for the pivotal battle scene, and many locals were used as extras.[4]

The project was plagued from the start by cost overruns, discord, and tragedy. Holden and Ford argued incessantly, and Wayne was preoccupied with pre-production logistics for The Alamo.[5] The slave woman Lukey's dialog was originally written in a stereotypic "Negro" dialect that Althea Gibson, the former Wimbledon and U.S. National tennis champion who played the role, found offensive. She informed Ford that she would not deliver her lines as written. Though Ford was notorious for his intolerance of actors' demands,[6] he agreed to modify the script.[7]

During filming of the climactic battle scene, veteran stuntman Fred Kennedy suffered a broken neck while performing a horse fall and died. "Ford was completely devastated," wrote biographer Joseph Malham. "[He] felt a deep responsibility for the lives of the men who served under him."[8] Though the film was scripted to end with the triumphant arrival of Marlowe's forces in Baton Rouge, Ford "simply lost interest" after Kennedy's death, and ended it with Marlowe's farewell to Hannah at the bridge.[9]

Despite its two major stars, the film was a commercial failure, due largely to Wayne's and Holden's high salaries, and the complex participation of multiple production companies. The audience and critical response was "lackluster".[10]

Historical accuracy

Though based loosely on Grierson's Raid, The Horse Soldiers is a fictional account that departs considerably from the actual events. The real-life protagonist, a music teacher named Benjamin Grierson, becomes railroad engineer John Marlowe in the film. Hannah Hunter, Marlowe's love interest, has no historical counterpart. Numerous other details were altered as well, "to streamline and popularize the story for the non-history buffs who would make up a large part of the audience."[11]

See also


  1. ^ "1959: Probable Domestic Take", Variety, 6 January 1960 p 34
  2. ^ Jones, Terry L. (2011). Historical Dictionary of the Civil War. Scarecrow Press. p. 621.  
  3. ^ Malham, J. John Ford: Poet in the Desert. Lake Street Press (2013), pp.261-2. ISBN 978-1-936181-08-7.
  4. ^ a b York, Neil Longley (January 2001). Fiction as Fact: The Horse Soldiers and Popular Memory. Kent State University Press. p. 82.  
  5. ^ Malham (2013), pp. 262-3.
  6. ^ Gallagher, T. John Ford: The Man and His Films. University of California Press (1988), p. 93. ISBN 0520063341.
  7. ^ Gray, FC; Lamb, YR. Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson John Wiley & Sons (2004), pp. 120-1. ISBN 978-0471471653.
  8. ^ Malham (2013), pp. 263-4.
  9. ^ Malham (2013), p. 264.
  10. ^ Malham (2013), p. 264.
  11. ^ York, N.L. Fiction as Fact: Horse Soldiers and Popular Memory. Kent State University Press (2001). ISBN 087338685X

External links

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