You realize watching it that there have been few movies about the Civil War since Gone with the Wind (1939). While the U.S. Army fighting Indians was for a long time standard fare on the screen, seeing those same soldiers shooting at other white Americans is something else again.
Ford chose wisely when he picked the novel The Horse Soldiers by Harold Sinclair (1907-1966). The book was based on Grierson’s Raid in 1863, during which 17,000 Union troops traveled from Tennessee across Mississippi to Union-held Baton Rouge doing damage to Confederate infrastructure.
Plot. There are three engagements in the film, one as a trainful of armed men attempts to defend the town of Newton’s Station. A charge down the main street into withering gunfire leaves many casualties. A makeshift hospital is organized to tend to the wounded, with the help of a local doctor. Meanwhile, the Union soldiers’ destruction of the town’s rail line is sobering in its thoroughness.
|Willian Holden and Constance Towers
Following that, the boys of a military academy attempt a courageous though foolhardy attack on the Union troops. It’s a relief when the soldiers react in disbelief and then make a quick retreat before any lives are lost. Finally, at the end of the film, an outnumbered contingent of Confederate soldiers attempts gamely to prevent the Union troops from crossing a bridge.
Most of the conflict in the film, however, is between the colonel (John Wayne) and an Army surgeon (William Holden). They are at cross-purposes from the first scene in which they meet. Wayne was a civil engineer for the railroad before the war; Holden was a graduate of West Point. Just about everything separates them, from class to temperament.
Amplifying the conflict is Constance Towers as a Southern belle, who happens to overhear Wayne’s plans to strike across enemy territory to Baton Rouge. To keep her from telling anyone what she knows, Wayne is forced to take her and her maid along. Her presence is a constant source of irritation to him.
Before all is said and done, she begins to have a change of heart about him. She seems sorry to see him go as she and Holden stay behind with the wounded, to be overtaken by the Confederate troops who are on their trail. Glad to be finally rid of her, Wayne makes a courteous but not unhurried exit. There’s no kissing.