The Horse Soldiers
1959 movie poster
Directed byJohn Ford
Screenplay byJohn Lee Mahin
Martin Rackin
Based onThe Horse Soldiers
1956 novel
by Harold Sinclair
Produced byJohn Lee Mahin (uncredited)
Martin Rackin (uncredited)
Allen K. Wood (production manager)[1]
StarringJohn Wayne
William Holden
Constance Towers
CinematographyWilliam H. Clothier
Edited byJack Murray
Music byDavid Buttolph
Color processColor by Deluxe
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • June 12, 1959 (1959-06-12)
Running time
120 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3.8 million (US and Canada rentals)[2]

The Horse Soldiers is a 1959 American adventure war western film set during the American Civil War directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, William Holden and Constance Towers. The screenplay by John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin was loosely based on Harold Sinclair's 1956 novel of the same name, a fictionalized version of Grierson's Raid in Mississippi.


A Union cavalry brigade led by Colonel John Marlowe—a railroad construction engineer in civilian life—is sent on a raid behind Confederate lines to destroy a railroad and supply depot at Newton Station. Major Henry Kendall, a regimental surgeon who is torn between duty and the horror of war, is constantly at odds with Marlowe.

While the unit rests at Greenbriar Plantation, Miss Hannah Hunter, the plantation's mistress, acts as a gracious hostess to the unit's officers. But she and her slave, Lukey, eavesdrop on a staff meeting as Marlowe discusses his battle strategy. To protect the secrecy of the mission, Marlowe is forced to take the two women with him. Initially hostile to her Yankee captor, Miss Hunter gradually comes to respect him and eventually falls in love with him. In addition to Kendall and Miss Hunter, Marlowe also must contend with Col. Phil Secord, a politically ambitious officer who continually second-guesses Marlowe's orders and command decisions.

Several battles ensue, including the capture of Newton Station, later a fire fight during which Lukey is killed, and a skirmish with boy cadets from a local military school (based on the actual Battle of New Market). After destroying the crucial supply line, and with Confederate forces in pursuit, the brigade reaches a bridge that must be stormed in order to access the Union lines. After taking the bridge, Marlowe's men rig it with explosive charges, and Marlowe bids Hannah farewell. Kendall chooses to remain behind with some badly wounded men, knowing he will be captured with them, rather than leave them unattended until Confederate medical personnel arrive.

Marlowe, though wounded, lights the fuse and is the last of his men to cross the bridge before it is destroyed, halting the Confederate advance. Their mission accomplished, he and his brigade continue on toward Baton Rouge.



The film was loosely based on Harold Sinclair's 1956 novel of the same name,[3] which in turn was based on the historic 17-day Grierson's Raid and Battle of Newton's Station in Mississippi during the Civil War.

In April 1863, Colonel Benjamin Grierson led 1,700 Illinois and Iowa soldiers from La Grange, Tennessee to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, through several hundred miles of enemy territory, destroying Confederate railroad and supply lines between Newton's Station and Vicksburg, Mississippi. The mission was part of the Union Army's successful Vicksburg campaign to gain control over boat traffic on the Mississippi River, culminating in the Battle of Vicksburg.[4] Grierson's destruction of Confederate-controlled rail links and supplies played an important role in disrupting Confederate General John C. Pemberton's strategies and troop deployments. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman reportedly described Grierson's daring mission as "the most brilliant of the war".[5]

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."[6]

Dr. Erastus Dean Yule, the real-life surgeon counterpart of Major Hank Kendall, actually did volunteer to stay behind and get captured by the Confederates with the casualties who were too wounded to continue.[7] The raid actually took place about a year before the notorious Andersonville POW camp was built, and he was eventually exchanged after several months as a POW.


Exterior scenes were filmed in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, along the banks of Cane River Lake, and in and around Natchez, Mississippi.[8] The film company built a bridge over the Cane River for the pivotal battle scene, and many locals were hired as extras.[8] It also features scenes shot in Wildwood Regional Park in Thousand Oaks, California.[9] The film used DeLuxe Color.

Holden and Wayne both received $750,000 for starring, a record salary at the time.[10] The project was plagued from the start by cost overruns, discord, and tragedy. Holden and Ford argued incessantly. Wayne was preoccupied with pre-production logistics for The Alamo.[11] Lukey's dialog was originally written in "Negro" dialect that Althea Gibson, the former Wimbledon and U.S. National tennis champion who was cast in 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,[12] he agreed to modify the script.[13]

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."[14] The film was scripted to end with the triumphant arrival of Marlowe's forces in Baton Rouge, but Ford "simply lost interest" after Kennedy's death. He ended the film with Marlowe's farewell to Hannah Hunter before crossing and blowing up the bridge.[15]


The film opened at number one in the United States[16] but was ultimately a commercial failure, due largely to Wayne's and Holden's high salaries and the complex participation of multiple production companies. The response of audiences and critics was "lackluster".[15]

Literary critic Manny Farber writing in The New Leader offers this assessment:

The Horse Soldiers is the disaster of the month, an eventful canter in which director Ford, without any plot to speak of, falls back on boyish Irish playfulness (played by a rigor-mortified John Wayne, an almost non-existent Bill Holden, and a new gnashing beauty named Connie Towers) to fill a several-million-dollar investment. The ‘comedy’ which includes Wayne’s troubles with a drunken top sergeant, a soldiering doctor, and a captive Southern belle, is interspersed with Ford’s stolidly evolved, beefy, Bonheur-ish ‘pictures.’ It all takes place on a plodding journey, which sends 1,700 hundred Union cavalrymen into the Confederacy in search of what turns out to be a screenplay.”[17]

See also


  1. ^ Landesman, Fred (August 13, 2015). The John Wayne Filmography. McFarland. p. 149. ISBN 9781476609225.
  2. ^ Cohn, Lawrence (October 15, 1990). "All-Time Film Rental Champs". Variety. p. M164.
  3. ^ Sinclair, H. The Horse Soldiers. Harper & Brothers (1965). ASIN: B0000CJIT1.
  4. ^ Jones, Terry L. (2011). Historical Dictionary of the Civil War. Scarecrow Press. p. 621. ISBN 978-0-8108-7811-2.
  5. ^ Malham, J. John Ford: Poet in the Desert. Lake Street Press (2013), pp. 261-2. ISBN 978-1-936181-08-7.
  6. ^ York, N.L. Fiction as Fact: Horse Soldiers and Popular Memory. Kent State University Press (2001). ISBN 087338685X
  7. ^ "Grierson's Raid: Wrecking the Railroad with the Butternut Guerrillas". December 22, 2018.
  8. ^ a b York, Neil Longley (January 2001). Fiction as Fact: The Horse Soldiers and Popular Memory. Kent State University Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-87338-688-3.
  9. ^ Schad, Jerry (2009). Los Angeles County: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide. Wilderness Press. Pages 35-36. ISBN 9780899976396.
  10. ^ "Brando, Holden, Wayne: $750,000-Per-Picture As Box Office Giants". Variety. November 26, 1958. p. 1. Retrieved March 10, 2019 – via
  11. ^ Malham (2013), pp. 262-3.
  12. ^ Gallagher, T. John Ford: The Man and His Films. University of California Press (1988), p. 93. ISBN 0520063341.
  13. ^ Gray, FC; Lamb, YR. Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson John Wiley & Sons (2004), pp. 120-1. ISBN 978-0471471653.
  14. ^ Malham (2013), pp. 263-4.
  15. ^ a b Malham (2013), p. 264.
  16. ^ "National Box Office Survey". Variety. July 1, 1959. p. 5. Retrieved May 19, 2019.
  17. ^ Farber, 2009 p. 522-523: from The New Leader, July 6, 1959