Patriotism (and the Brotherhood of Men At Arms) in John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers

On July 8, 2014 by Keith Harris

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 9.03.42 AMFor those of you who have not seen this film -  There are a couple of things going on. First – the tense love-hate relationship between Union Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) and his prisoner, Rebel-supporting Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar (Constance Towers). Second, there is the even more tense, pretty much all-hate relationship between Marlowe and Major Henry Kendall (William Holden), a Union army doctor.

All of this is set in the Civil War Confederacy, behind enemy lines, so to speak – where the Union soldiers wreak havoc on the Rebel’s ability to fight. Tearing up railroads, burning cotton and salt mills…you know, the stuff the Union army was great at doing.

Infused in to the war backdrop is an overtly patriotic bent. Both sides seem intently wedded to their cause. And they express this both verbally and through music – as the men of both armies march in to action singing national and otherwise patriotic songs.

But another theme runs alongside – weaving a reconciliatory thread into the story. While both sides clearly want victory – neither seems particularly hostile (emotionally) toward their enemies – well, at least the men act this way. I’ll talk about the women some other day. Of course they fight gallantly – it is their duty to do so. But the film contains all the essential ingredients for a “we are all just soldiers after all” wrap up.

Take the encounter between Kendall and one of his old army buddies who had gone with the Rebs. They have a pleasant exchange, naturally, and go their separate ways to their respective causes. This type of scene in a Civil War film is about as obligatory as the one featuring an amputation. Every Civil War picture has it, you know. But the last scene in the film is really my favorite. It leaves you just plain feeling good about things – when a Rebel officer offers his regimental surgeon to look after Union wounded.

See – we can all just get along…right after we kill each other in great profusion.

There is so much more to talk about….slaves, loyal slaves, Confederate women, the transposition of the Battle of New Market (VMI Cadets…) into the Western Theater, Bill Holden’s tight pants, John Wayne’s acting chops….the list goes on – so I will save some stuff for a later date.

For now, I want to suggest this. Ford released The Horse Soldiers just two years before the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965). This was a commemoration that highlighted the tragedy of the brother against brother war and the spirit of reconciliation. The film is most certainly a reflection of the times on one hand – but on the other….the centennial commemorative period was (officially) devoid of problematic issues. The films highlights a few. Slavery makes more than one appearance in the film in very interesting ways….stay tuned – I will have lots to say about that later.

With compliments,

Keith

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The Americanist Independent: A Monthly Journal of United States History

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