The Horse Soldiers (a J!-ENT Blu-Ray Disc Review)

May 18, 2011 by  

John Ford and John Wayne collaborated again for this Civil War film loosely based on the true story of the “Grierson Raid”.  A barebones Blu-ray release with no restoration done, while it may look better than its DVD counterpart, this Blu-ray release could have been better.

Images courtesy of © 1959 Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Horse Soldiers


DURATION: 120 minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (widescreen 1:66:1), English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio, Spanish Mono, French Mono, Subtitles: English SDH, French


COMPANY: UA/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc./Twentieth Century Fox

RELEASE DATE: May 10, 2011

Directed by John Ford

Based on the novel by Harold Sinclair

Written by John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin

Producer: John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin

Music by David Buttolph

Cinematographer by William H. Clothier

Edited by Jack Murray

Art Direction by Frank Hotaling


John Wayne as Col. John Marlowe

William Holden as Maj. Henry Kendall

Constance Towers as Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar

Judson Pratt as Sgt. Major Kirby

Hoot Gibson as Sgt. Brown

Ken Curtis as Cpl. Wilkie

Willis Bouchey as Col. Phil Secord

Bing Russell as Dunker, Yankie Soldier Amputee

O.Z. Whitehead as Otis “Hoppy” Hopkins

Hank Worden as Deacon Clump

Chuck Hayward as Union Captain

Denver Pyle as Jackie Jo

Strother Martin as Virgil

Based on an actual Civil War incident, The Horse Soldiers tells the rousing tale of a troop of Union soldiers who force their way deep into Southern territory to destroy a rebel stronghold at Newton Station. In command is hardbitten Colonel Marlowe (Wayne), a man who is strikingly contrasted by the company’s gentle surgeon (Holden) and the beautiful but crafty Southern belle (Constance Towers) who’s forced to accompany the Union raiders on perhaps the most harrowing mission in the war.

Filmmaker John Ford and actor John Wayne have had a long working history together and in 1959, both have worked on westerns and war films together and one of the films that many Civil War aficionados have clamored for is the 1959 DeLuxe Color war film “The Horse Soldiers” starring Wayne, William Holden and Constance Towers, which is based on a novel by Harold Sinclair.

The film is loosely based on actual events from the Civil War primarily the Grierson’s Raid and the Battle of Newton’s Station.  For those not familiar with Grierson’s Raid, as Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was planning an attack on Vicksburg, Mississippi, a Union cavalry raid planned a diversion to lead the Confederate Army away from Grant’s attack.

Heading the Union cavalry was Col. Benjamin Grierson who accompanied 1,700 horse troopers and rode over 600 miles through hostile Confederate territory, which was not done before by any Union soldiers.  While they headed from southern Tennessee to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Union cavalry tore up railroads, freed slaves, burned and destroyed any Confederate store houses, locomotives, stores, bridges, buildings and took on Confederate troops.  And remarkably, they succeeded with hardly any damage.

And in the process, the Union cavalry captured two Confederate trains, destroyed miles of railroad track and severed any communications between Confederate soldiers.

In “The Horse Soldiers”, John Wayne plays the role of Col. John Marlowe, loosely based on the actual Col. Benjamin Grierson.    As Marlowe is sent on a raid in Confederate territory and must destroy the railroad and supply depot at Newton Station, he is accompanied by Major Henry Kendall (played by William Holden), a regimental surgeon who he doesn’t get along with.  For Kendall, he has seen the worst of war and is torn between serving the cavalry and helping those who are in need of medical help (this includes slaves).

While the Union cavalry takes a rest at Greenbriar Plantation, ran by Miss Hannah Hunter (played by Constance Towers), while the Union are planning their attack, Major Kendall discovers that both Miss Hunter and her slave Lukey (played by Althea Gibson) were eavesdropping on their private staff meeting.  Because of this, Marlowe has no choice but to make sure Hannah and Lukey go with them, so they do not jeopardize the Union raid.

Of course, Hannah is immediately at odds with Marlowe because she is forced to accompany them.  And dealing with a woman who is always mouthing off and possibly getting Marlowe and his Union soldiers in trouble, along with a doctor who tends to hold the cavalry up whenever he finds someone injured or sick and also dealing with Col. Phil Secord who doubts Marlowe’s decisions, this leads to problems for Marlowe.

But as the Union cavalry marches on, they must travel in Confederate territory, knowing that they are targets but also having to prepare for a skirmish with young cadets (based on the Battle of New Market) and more.


“The Horse Soldiers” is featured in 1080p High Definition (widescreen 1:66:1). Of the recent MGM Blu-ray catalog classic film releases, “The Horse Soldiers” shows its age.    There are speckles, scratches, some parts seem a bit dark and also have a lot of rain.  While I do enjoy films with a good amount of grain, somehow this film looks like it has a bit too much.  Also, the film does exhibit some flickering.

But despite the minor issues I have with the transfer, I’m sure that when it came to deciding which film gets more treatment for remastering and restoring (which is expensive), “The Horse Soldiers” was probably not priority title.  But considering that the DVD release was back in 2001, because it is presented in HD, colors are much more bolder, detail is much more evident and I have no doubt that this film looks much better than its DVD counterpart.


“The Horse Soldiers” is presented in English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio and Spanish Mono and French Mono. The film is center-channel driven but if you have a modern receiver, you can easily select stereo on all channels if needed. But for the most part, dialogue was clear and understandable.


“The Horse Soldiers” comes with the following special feature:

  • Theatrical Trailer –  The original theatrical trailer for “The Horse Soldiers”.

“The Horse Soldiers” is a film that my friends (who are into civil war re-enactments) and Wayne/Ford fans are very much into.  Having a good collection of John Wayne films, for me, “The Horse Soldiers” was OK compared to other John Ford/John Wayne films available.

What I did like about the film is the focus on the soldiers and the conflicts they run into.  The pairing of John Wayne and William Holden for the most part is well-done as both actors do a great job playing their role, but at the same time, I felt that Holden’s role was not so important to the film.  The film was about Marlowe and him leading his men, yes, it’s great to see if have conflicts with soldiers and other leaders when it comes to his decisions but there was a bit of an over-emphasis on Holden’s character and I understand Holden’s star power at the time but I felt his character could have been better utilized.

But I suppose, I was looking for something more serious, the addition of Constance Towers’ character of Hannah and her continuing belligerence towards Marlowe was growing old for me quickly.  And in late ’50s fashion, you get the contrived leader who is able to capture the attention of the woman and you have this romantic element.

I suppose I was hoping to see more of the battle, the suffering, the camaraderie of the men who fought this war and while we do get that in this film, suffering is whittled down to minutes while we are given scenes with a bickering Hannah biting Marlowe’s hand or constant arguing (mostly her getting upset at him quite often).

For me, I’m so used to war films focusing on the battle, the strategy, the camaraderie and since this film was loosely based on real events, I wanted to see more of that realism no romantic angles, no romantic bickering.  But for those who would like to see a romantic component to a war film, then you will find it in “The Horse Soldiers”, albeit not done all that well.

But what it does well is when the film focuses on the fighting, the battles, the emotion of war.  John Wayne and William Holden do a great job when it’s focused on war, John Ford does a great job when he focused on it as well.  It is important to note that during filming of “The Horse Soldiers”, a veteran stuntman was killed when he fell off his horse.  The film of the stuntman falling was kept in the film.

As for the Blu-ray release, aside from the trailer, it is a barebones release and it’s a classic film that didn’t exactly receive much restoration for its HD transfer.  Sure, it’s better than its DVD counterpart but for those hoping to see a major difference, unfortunately, not with “The Horse Soldiers” on Blu-ray.

Overall, “The Horse Soldiers” is a film that features the first collaboration between John Wayne and William Holden and features another collaboration between the filmmaker John Ford and John Wayne.  While the film has its positives, especially when it comes to showcasing the Union cavalry, “The Horse Soldiers” may not be the best John Ford/John Wayne film but it is still worth watching.


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