John Ford, John Wayne and Grierson’s Raid
Well, you Yankees and your holy principle about savin’ the Union. You’re plunderin’ pirates that’s what. Well, you think there’s no Confederate army where you’re goin’. You think our boys are asleep down here. Well, they’ll catch up to you and they’ll cut you to pieces you, you nameless, fatherless scum. I wish I could be there to see it.
Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar, portrayed by Constance Towers in The Horse Soldiers
One of my commenters at Almost Chosen People, the American history blog I run with Paul Z, noted my post on movies for a Memorial Day weekend and directed me to a review he had written of The Horse Soldiers (1959), the classic retelling of Grierson’s Raid during the Civil War by John Ford, and the last of the “cavalry collaboration” films between Ford and John Wayne. I enjoyed the review, and Fabio Paolo Barbieri, the author, has given me permission to repost it here:
John Ford’s THE HORSE SOLDIERS. About half of this movie is one of the greatest war films ever done; indeed, one of the greatest that can possibly be made – more, perhaps, may be made, but not better. It would, in my view, be impossible to give a better, a more painful, a more affecting and tragic view of war. War is one of the greatest subjects in the arts, and it affords a virtually infinite field for reflection and for emotion; and it is my view – or rather, I think, my experience, that the authors of this movie reached to its very bottom. More ketchup sauce, more plastic severe limbs, more and more savage special effects, could not possibly increase its impact, because that impact is not on the gut and the nerves, but on the emotions and on the mind. It is a work of thought, as well as of magisterial narrative control.
(That, incidentally, is why I find The Bridge on the River Kwai overrated. It collapses at its very last frame, when the American character describes everything that has gone on until then as “madness, madness”. Whatever its implications and its emotional content, it clearly was not madness; and the impact of those final words is that of a simple refusal to think about what the movie had shown – an inexcusable retreat into irrationalism. That any reflection would be very painful is an explanation but not an excuse.)
Great narrative artists think in plot structure, and the plot structure of that half of The Horse Soldiers - the significant half, the masterpiece half – is both unique and extraordinarily well realized. The climax of the story is not where we expect it to be; and both the false and the true climax are worked up to with exacting, time-burning care, for maximum impact. The story concerns a U.S. cavalry raid – said to be a real historical event – to destroy an important Confederate railway line and depot and so deny besieged Vicksburg vitally needed supplies. The cavalry column, led by a former railway worker promoted to Colonel on the battlefield, will be moving from beginning to end in enemy territory, and have to keep its mission secret down to the very moment in which it will accomplish it. The movie does an excellent job of displaying the difficulties and the dreadful exhaustion of such a mission; indeed, it is typical of the way in which every narrative element is used to build up, that the meeting of officers with which it starts takes place in a downpour – this immediately informs us that this mission will be no joy ride. (And because John Ford is economical and does not abuse story elements, the downpour is not repeated – although the cavalrymen enjoy the pleasures of forced marching, bug swarms, swamp rides, injuries, amputations without anaesthetic, fever, battle deaths, sunstroke and exhaustion. To inform the public that this story is to be taken seriously is one thing; to repeat oneself unnecessarily is another.)
Dodging Confederate forces and possible spies (but pausing to rescue one decent Southern sheriff from two villainous defectors – a charming scene), the cavalrymen reach their target, which they find virtually ungarrisoned, its few soldiers under the command of an armless veteran who once was the friend of one of the Union officers (a fine touch, reminding us of what a civil war actually does). Indeed, just as they are sitting in the captured village, a Confederate train appears on the line – as if just coming to fall right into waiting Union hands.
It seems too good to be true, and it is. Quick inquiries by the suspicious ex-railwayman colonel (John Wayne) bring out the fact that the captured enemy commander had been found in the telegraph office. A minimum of rushed orders send the practiced Union veterans scurrying to set their own trap, around the only road down which the enemy must charge; and when the Confederate soldiers of which the train was full come charing out, they are met with murderous fire on all sides and slaughtered nearly to the last man.
As I said, there is no abuse of ketchup sauce or flying body part; this is not Quentin Tarantino. But Ford makes damn well sure that we understand, first, that these are extraordinarily brave men – they go on charging at an impossibly entrenched enemy as long as there is one of them left standing; and, second, that their only reward for their bravery is agonizing death or lifelong deformity and mutilation. Not only is the battle itself a model of perfect staging and shooting (indeed, throughout this movie, Ford’s always luminous photography reaches an especial pitch of inspiration), but he takes some considerable time after the battle scene to give us an account of the desperate and mostly unavailing medical care given the injured Confederates by medics of both sides. At the same time, not to miss any opportunity for bitter and powerful contrasts, the Union cavalrymen are carefully destroying, with considerable and rowdy good humour, every bit of railway they can reach and the whole content of the local depot.
But the story is not over. The column has achieved its target, but it must leave or be captured and sent to the dreaded Confederate prison camp, Andersonville. It is already too far south to get back to its starting point, and besides that is where the Confederates would be waiting for them. Its only hope is to march south, to where the Union holds New Orleans and the Mississippi delta. So, exhausted and carrying their wounded, they set out again.
Here their luck runs out. Their direction is understood, and a few scattered local forces are quickly brought together to trap them near a local bridge. There are a few cannon there, and some breastworks; but they cannot contain the charge of two cavalry regiments. The Confederates desperately need manpower – any kind of manpower. And so, word is sent to the Colonel-Headmaster of a local military boarding school.
As I will say later in this review, the attempts at comic relief in this movie are mostly unavailing and foolish. But in this moment, comedy blossoms into tragedy and into one of the greatest climaxes in the whole art of cinema. Ford, as I said, takes his time to make sure that we understand exactly what he wants us to understand. To begin with, the Colonel-Headmaster is a comically aged old coot, stiff with arthritis as well as with military bearing, and obviously well past active service. He moves at marching pace, but at a slow march, and leaning on a cane. Nonetheless, and in spite of looking like the incarnation of everything ossified and unbending in the military world, he briefly resists the request for support: his cadets are children. But then, there are both teen-agers and grandfathers in the scratch force brought together to stop the Union troops. The Colonel-Headmaster summons his cadets together – all in beautiful azure and white uniforms that would make them unmissable targets – and marches them off to battle.
This would already be sufficiently tragic and pathetic, but Ford has yet another way to twist the knife in the wound. As the long, long line of children in uniform marches off past a bunch of pretty, well-kept, deceptively peaceful-looking Southern homes with white picket fences, a young woman, looking barely older than adolescent herself, rushes over to the Headmaster and starts begging him for her only son’s life. She is in tears, giving a list of the family members she has already lost to Moloch: her son is literally the last one left. His expression still stiff and unchanging, the Headmaster commands the boy from the ranks, but even so, his mother has to literally wrestle him into the house. The child is absolutely eager to go to battle; and after his mother locks him in his room, he climbs out the window and down the green ivy on to the lawn, and runs after the cadets. (Throughout this scene, the green and clean loveliness of the environment is subtly emphasized, bringing out the contrast with the rising horror of events.)
This is the movie’s true climax, and the reason why I say that nothing more powerful, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, can be said about war. The climax of this long movie, from which it slowly winds itself down to the moment when the cavalry is finally safe, lasts only a few seconds; but those seconds are the pay-off line of a build-up that has been going on really from the start of the whole story. Just as the cavalry has engaged the Confederate breastworks – and we see men being wounded, falling, dying, as we have already seen in the previous battle scene – the long, long line of children appears over a hill, marching at the Headmaster’s slow pace – that is, to a cavalry unit, at less than a snail’s pace – and firing their ancient single-shot rifles as they march. The suggestion is simply terrible. Anyone who can watch this great scene, staged with agonizing mastery, without feeling pity and horror and a terrible, reluctant kind of admiration – anyone who can sit through this movie and come to this scene unmoved, is dead. Not to mention wholly unworthy of Ford’s genius.
I actually think that it is part of Ford’s genius that he denies us what one would expect in a more modern author: the children are not, in fact, wiped out, or even shot at. By the time they come to the scene, the cavalry has already gained an opening, and they are breaking out. The commander positively orders not to shoot at anyone, not even at the old Colonel-Headmaster still marching defiantly ahead of his charges; and when one of “the enemy” – our very same little friend who had escaped his mother – happens to fall into Yankee hands, his only punishment is to be well and truly spanked, as he yells: “Damn Yankees!” I do not feel this is any way an anti-climax, because in my view nothing could possibly top that tragic, appalling (and magnificently worked up to!) sense of foreordained doom we had felt as the children came marching in. In fact, I strongly feel that a massacre of children would have diminished the effect, moving the centre of our feeling from our heart to our guts. Sometimes less is more; that is in my view the case here.
Now if this were all there is to the movie, this would be one of the greatest movies ever made, not to mention the best in Ford’s illustrious career and Wayne’s handsome roster. However, unfortunately, someone – Ford, the producer, the scriptwriters, maybe all of them together – seems to have suffered a failure of nerve. They seem to have felt the need to gild the lily of this magnificent – and, plot-wise, unique – story idea, with a number of “personal interest” ideas and some “personal conflicts”. The John Wayne character, for instance, is supposed to hate doctors because his wife was killed in a botched cancer operation before the war; and he falls in love with a captured Southern belle and amateur spy. None of this is well-connected to the essential heart of the story, and none of it is particularly good. Wayne does a commendable job of emoting about his dead wife and his living lady-love; he was a much better actor than anyone was willing to admit, and in this movie he was given the chance to show it. But it was all unnecessary and added nothing to the total effect.
Even worse were a couple of surrenders to the old Western-movie habit of having “funny” minor characters; which, to make matters worse, involved characters that made no sense at all. To have Walter Brennan play a funny drunk doctor or a funny cantankerous old man in a straight Western (and never mind that the same actor had played the sinister Father Clanton in My Darling Clementine and done a magnificent job of it) could be acceptable. To cast Wayne’s fellow Colonel following him into danger as a ridiculously cowardly and ridiculously ambitious political hopeful is nonsense; such a man would never be selected for a dangerous mission by any commander-in-chief worth his salt. Even worse is to cast an airheaded clown as a preacher who had got to know the swamps by smuggling freed slaves; such a man would not have lasted one mission. These characters are, thank Heaven, secondary, but every time they appear they cause a teeth-grindingly awful fall in tone.
So here we are. One half of this movie is not only one of the greatest war movies ever made, but one of the greatest that will ever be made. Another half is just the detritus of a lot of ill-judged professional reflexes, some of it actively damaging. Luckily, the right half is the backbone of the movie and its driving force.
Three observations about the review. The references to Andersonville in the film are of course an anachronism as the raid is taking place in 1863 and the ghastly Andersonville POW camp would not be constructed until 1864. The scene involving the two Confederate deserters is comedic gold. Featuring two of the greatest character actors of their generation, Strother Martin and Denver Pyle, the scene is hilarious. Go here to watch it. Fabio is correct that the centerpiece of the film is the summoning of the cadets to attempt to delay the raiders until regular Confederate forces could arrive. Ford masterfully conveys through this scene the total effort waged by the Confederates in their gallant but ultimately doomed fight. In 1864 the cadets of VMI (Virginia Military Institute) would heroically take the field at the battle of New Market, a Confederate victory, 10 being slain and six of those ten being buried on the VMI grounds behind the statue Virginia Mourning Her Dead. In a light scene Ford captures this gallant and grim aspect, robbing the cradle and the grave, of the War for the Confederacy.