The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

The Horse Soldiers (1959) Classic Movie Review 126

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

No... the man I knew could lose both arms and still try to kick you to death.


Today’s movie is The Horse Soldiers (1959). This movie was directed by John Ford and features his visual styling. The story is military, but the real issue is between, the mission-oriented commander, played by John Wayne and a doctor, more concerned with lifesaving, played by William Holden. The movie is based on a real Civil War raid that took place as a part of General Grant’s campaign to capture Vicksburg and control the Mississippi River.

There are a lot of show veterans, so, let’s jump right in.



The single-minded Union Commander Col. John Marlowe was played by John Wayne. John Wayne was first covered way back in Episode 2 – Chisum (1970).

William Holden was outstanding as Doctor Maj. Henry Kendall. Holden was covered in Episode 79 – Stalag 17 (1953).

Willis Bouchey had a large role as Col. Phil Secord, a glory-seeking politician in military uniform. Bouchey was first covered in Episode 37 – The Violent Men (1955).

The regular John Wayne gang consisted of Ken Curtis, Fetus, as Cpl. Wilkie from Episode 49 – The Alamo (1960), Bing Russell as Dunker from Episode 12 – Billy the Kidd Versus Dracula (1966), Hank Worden as Deacon Clump from Episode 49 – The Alamo (1960), where he also played a reverend, and William Wellman Jr. uncredited as a Bugler from Episode 72 – The Born Losers (1967).

The great unheralded actor Strother Martin played the role of a Confederate deserter named Virgil. Strother Martin was first covered way back in Episode 3 – McLintock! (1963). Denver Pyle played another deserter Jackie Jo. Pyle was covered in Episode 49 – The Alamo (1960).

At Newton Station, Mississippi, the local Confederate commander is Col. Miles played by Carleton Young. Young was first covered in Episode 66 – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962).

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

More senior actor Basil Ruysdael, covered in Blackboard Jungle (1955) played the Reverend Commandant of a boys military academy, required to send his young men into combat, based on the Battle of New Market. The academy scenes were filmed the historic Jefferson College in Natchez, Mississippi. It is a nice place to visit if you are in the area.


Constance Towers played fierce southern Hannah Hunter. Towers was born in Montana in 1933. As a child Towers appeared on the radio and later had plans to be an opera singer. When her family moved to New York, she began studying at the Julliard School of Music and later at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts (AADA).

Eventually, she was led from opera to stage work. Several movie roles came her way such as playing a school teacher in a musical Bring Your Smile Along (1955), a sappy southern in The Horse Soldiers (1959), Sergeant Rutledge (1960) with Jeffrey Hunter and Woody Strode, she played a stripper in Shock Corridor (1963), and finally, a reforming prostitute in The Naked Kiss (1964). However, her movie career never really took off.

She made her Broadway debut in 1965 and was truly a star in this medium. She also later became very successful on television as well, including soap operas. More recent movies include The Next Karate Kid (1994), The Relic (1997), and A Perfect Murder (1998).

Althea Gibson played the slave attendant to Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers). Gibson had a small part but she has a pretty amazing story. Gibson was born in 1927 in South Carolina. She grew up in Harlem and at the age of 15 won the New York City Black Tennis Championship. This got her a sports scholarship to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, FAMU. Rattlers Strike!

In 1950, Gibson was the first African-American to play in the US Tennis Championship. In 1951, she became the first African-American to play at Wimbledon. She won the French open in 1956, she won Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and she won the US Championship in 1957 and 1958. After retiring from tennis in 1958, Gibson traveled with the Harmen Globetrotters putting on exhibition. In 1964, she became the first African-American to play in the LPGA.

Gibson tried singing and acting, and this movie is part of the attempt. In The Horse Soldiers (1959) Gibson was able to get the contrarian director to change some of her dialogue. Her acting career never took off. Gibson retired from golf in 1977 and spent the next almost two decades working in New Jersey sports. She died in poverty in 2003 at the age of 76.

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Legendary cowboy star Hoot Gibson played the role of Sgt. Brown. It is said that he appeared in this film as a favor to his old friend John Ford. Edmund Richard Gibson, later known as Hoot, was born in 1892, in Nebraska. Hoot grew up in Wyoming, Colorado, and California and was a real cowboy. At 13, the young Toby Tyler ran away and worked in a circus for a time. He began rodeoing and in 1907, joined a wild west company for 4-years.

In 1910, Hoot began performing stunts in movies. After the main director that he was working with was murdered, he began doing stunt work for D.W. Griffith. While working as a stuntman and bit actor, he kept rodeo riding and won national and international championships.

By the late teens, Hoot was working with Harry Carey and director John Ford for films like Cheyenne’s Pal (1917), Straight Shooting (1917), The Secret Man (1917), and A Marked Man (1917).

When World War I broke out, Hoot joined the Army rising to the rank of Sargent in the Tank Corp, just like Elvis did later. In 1919, he was discharged and went back to the movies.

Hoot slowly became more popular and the Ford directed, Action (1921), made him a star. Amazingly, Hoot was making almost $15,000 a week in 1925. He made the transition to talkies with no problem.

Hoot’s movies made the transition to race car driving and flying cowboys, but he was eventually done in by the singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Hoot toured with a circus in 1938 and 1939 before returning to movies in 1943. His last big film was Trigger Law (1944).

Hoot did a little television work and cameos in movies like The Horse Soldiers (1959) and Ocean’s 11 (1960). In 1960, he was diagnosed with cancer and was out of money. He took any work he could find, including casino greeter and carnival appearances. He died in 1962 at the age of 70.


This movie begins with lines of Union cavalry slowly riding along a levy and singing a song about home. This is classic John Ford directing as he loved to show long lines of men set against a wide expanse. I was never sure if this made man larger, towering over the landscape, or small as compared to the landscape.

Union Col. John Marlowe is taken by his commanding general onboard a ship where he meets General’s Grant and Sherman. The implication is that the raid will help Grant take Vicksburg. They plan to head from LaGrange, Tennessee to attack the Newton Depot, now known as Newton, Mississippi. Marlowe and his men will destroy anything they can on the way down related to railroading. This is very similar to the true raid shown in The General (1926) and The Great Locomotive Chase (1956). Grant warns Marlowe not to get caught and spend the rest of the war in Andersonville Prison located in Georgia.

Back in LaGrange, the Union cavalry is getting ready to leave. The men have been led to believe they are going to Nashville for a parade. Colonel Secord (Willis Bouchey), announces that he is going into politics.

Cpl. Wilkie (Ken Curtis), Sgt. Dunker (Bing Russell) and another man are sitting around swapping rumors, a favorite pastime of soldiers since the dawn of civilization. A white coat wearing Doctor Maj. Henry Kendall (William Holden) arrives and reports that he has been assigned to the raid.

Trying to be snotty, Marlowe says Kendall is out of uniform. When he finds out he is a doctor, he pitches a fit to the commanding general. The general says the doctor goes along. Marlowe takes Kendall in for a talk. Kendall is shocked that Marlowe plans to leave his wounded behind. Kendall is assigned to check the men for fitness and he stands up to Marlowe. Kendall removes the veteran Sgt. Major (Jack Pennick) from duty. Kendall assistant is Hoppy Hopkins (O.Z. Whitehead).

Marlowe sends his men to capture another Sgt. Major and they catch Sgt. Maj. Kirby (Judson Pratt) to go on the raid.

The troops ride out and it’s not long until the men realize they are heading south. Soon after they enter southern territory and send out scouts, they come under attack from some Confederate dismounted cavalry. Two Union soldiers are wounded and Kendall gives aid. One of them later dies.

Kendall is called to a slave cabin where a woman is giving birth. When Marlowe finds out he places the doctor under officers arrest and orders him to only work on soldiers. Since the Union force has been discovered, Marlowe sends about 1/3 of his troops back.

At sundown, they arrive at a plantation, which I believe is Oakland Plantation, a part of Cane River Creole National Historical Park. In the movie, two ladies are in the house, white owner Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) and devoted slave Lukey (Aletha Gibson). Marlowe kicks his way in and gets snotty. Hannah Hunter comes down and plays the southern belle. Marlowe says his men will be sleeping on the property that night and she is under house arrest. Hannah curses the Yankees as soon as they are out of site.

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

She returns as a belle and charms Secord and invites them to dinner. Kendall declines because he is under arrest. That night at dinner they are well fed and dined. She belles it up and does chicken breast vs human breast showing. Marlowe says they will use the room for a meeting and she leads them to a smoking room. Kendall is sent to guard Hannah as she goes upstairs.

Marlowe and the other officers go over the plan. Lukey goes in with Hannah and when Kendall opens the fire box he learns that he can hear the men talking in the room below. Marlowe tells them that they will head across the southern territory to Baton Rouge after the attack on Newton Station. Kendall opens the door and he sees Lukey and Hannah listening at the other fire pipe.

Downstairs Kendall grabs the two ladies and throws them into the meeting room and tells that they were listening. After being caught, Hannah goes full Confederate. Marlowe forces Hannah and Lukey to travel with the cavalry to protect their movements. On the march, Hannah makes a break but is quickly run down after she falls in the water. She is forced to watch Union soldiers, dry her underwear while she sits in a blanket.

The scouts soon return and say an enemy scouting patrol is on the other side of the river. The Union cavalry hides in the trees to let the enemy pass by. Hannah tries to warn them but Marlowe chocks her out. On Kendall advice, Marlow gets a hat full of water and dumps it on her. Two sergeants are demoted for letting her escape. Hannah slaps Marlowe for not allowing her privacy.

The scouting party, including Deacon Clump (Hank Worden), is fired upon from a barn. The men in the barn quickly surrender. The two Confederates are deserters Virgil (Strother Martin) and Jackie Jo (Denver Pyle). They are holding the local sheriff (Russell Simpson) as a prisoner. Hannah rides in and thinks, Marlowe is mistreating the sheriff. Marlowe gives the deserters first aid and new cigars. The two deserters give all of the info on their old units. Marlowe then puts on a glove and knocks out the two deserters. They then tie them up and give them to the sheriff. Marlowe has told the sheriff that they are heading to Vicksburg.

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

The Union cavalry makes it to Newton Station and has a rather cold reception from the ladies. There are wounded Confederates waiting in the town. The local Confederate commander is the wounded Col. Miles (Carleton Young). Kendall knows Marlowe from the old days fighting out west. Kendell says Miles is West Point and he can’t believe he gave up without a fight. Just then they get news that a Rebel train is coming in fast.

The Union forces quickly form a defensive barricade in the road and between the buildings. The Confederates on the train jump off and charge straight into the barricade where they are shot down like dogs. When most of the Confederates are dead, the now wounded Col. Miles comes down the street holding the battle flag. Kendall tackles him to save his life.

Kendall and a Confederate doctor tend to the wounded. Hannah helps for a while, but like Scarlett, she has to leave the hospital. Lukey leads the African-Americans in making bandages. The Union troops get busy tearing up the railroad and make Sherman bowties. The bowties are made by heating up a section of railroad track and wrapping it around a tree or a telephone pole.

In the real war, there is was no real Battle of Newton Depot. The Union forces took it and burned a bunch of stuff up with little to no resistance. Marlowe sits with a young man as he dies. Finally, Col. Miles makes it to the operating table.

Outside of the hospital Marlowe drinks and rages on everyone. Hannah studies him before she breaks down. Marlowe explains that he hates doctors because they killed his true love in an operation. As Kendal gets ready to leave he has a peaceful moment with his friend Col. Miles. Miles says that Confederate Gen. Bedford Forrest is after them and they will soon be in Andersonville prison. Hoppy stays with the wounded prisoners.

The Union cavalry heads towards Baton Rouge leaving Newton Station a burning mess. The townspeople send word that the Union forces are moving southwest towards Baton Rouge. Col. Secord is spreading sedition against his commander. Dunker has blood poisoning and Kendall uses green moss to treat it and Marlowe is disgusted.

Later, the troop is passing an African American church and are fired on by a Confederate militia. Lukey is shot and Kendall begins to treat her. Before he can start, she dies. All the Union men, including Sgt. Brown (Hoot Gibson) and Marlowe are kind to Hannah.

In the morning, Kendall finds that Dunker has removed his poultice. Kendall takes him in for surgery. The troop beds down for the night and Kendall has to remove the leg. They plan on hitting a salt factory in the morning.

The Confederate commander of an artillery battery says he needs the aid of the cadets from the Jefferson Military Academy. The Commandant (Basil Ruysdael) says his oldest boy is only 16, but he agrees to help. The 16-year-old student commander orders his boys up. At dawn, they move to join the artillery battery. The Commandant leads the boys, except two that have mumps, forward with only a bible and a cane in his hands.

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

As they pass a house, a woman comes down and begs that her son, one of the drummers, be excused, because his paw, his uncles, and brothers have all been killed. The Commandant releases the boy and the mother drags the fighting child into the house. In the morning, Kendall tells Marlowe that he lost Dunker during the operation. Marlowe jumps on his ass and Kendall demands a fight.

Meanwhile, the little drummer boy escapes from his mother’s house. Marlowe and Kendall head to the woods to fight it out. Their one punch John Wayne fight is cut short when the Confederate artillery battery opens up on the camped troops. The Union men see the boys crossing the field in a linear formation. Marlowe stops the Union men from firing but the boys fire a couple of volleys. The troop mounts and gets ready to run. The drummer boy is caught by Wilkie and Marlowe says spank him before you let him go. The boys charge with bayonets as the Union cavalry flees.

Later, the scouts come in and report that the road is blocked by Confederate regulars and that cavalry is closing on them from behind. Deacon says he knows the way through the swamp because he used to work on the Underground Railroad, smuggling escaped slaves north.

Quickly, Confederate cavalry finds the Union trail into the swamp. Marlowe keeps his weakened band moving forward. Finally, the Union forces make it to a bridge over the river. Marlowe tells Hannah that they are leaving her behind to be picked up by the Confederate forces. About that time they start receiving fire from the side of the river they want to get to. Marlowe is hit in the foot by the fire. He is forced to go under the knife of Kendall. Hannah tends to Marlowe as he looks at her like he is in love.

He orders men to find a way across the river and orders Secord to fight and not surrender. Kendall takes the bullet out of Marlowe’s leg and fixes the wound. Marlowe goes to fight and Kendall gets ready to treat the wounded.

The scouts find a place to cross. Marlowe leads a charge across the bridge into the throat of the enemy. The attack overpowers the Confederates. But the Union troops pay a huge price. With the bridge in their hands, the Union forces place dynamite on the bridge. Kendall decides to stay with the wounded even though he will end up in a POW camp.

Marlowe tells Hannah that he is in love with her and they have a sad moment as the Rebel cavalry closes in. As Hannah watches, Marlowe lights the fuse and gallops across the bridge ahead of the explosion. The Confederate come in and they have a surgeon so Kendall could have left. He takes Hannah back into the hospital.


This movie was based on an actual Union raid during the Civil War. General Grant had been trying for almost a year to capture Vicksburg and thus control the Mississippi River. In the Spring of 1863, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson led about 1,700 cavalry trooper in a raid on Newton Station. They tore up a lot of railroads and burned supplies but there was very little fighting.

The famous Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest was in Alabama chasing another Union raid leaving north Mississippi fairly open. There was no battle with a boys school and Grierson and his men made it back to Union-held Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

These raids had the effect of drawing resources away from the defense of Vicksburg, by Confederate General Pemberton. Grant was able to take Vicksburg on July 4th, 1863. The town did not celebrate the nations birthday for over 100 years afterward.

World-Famous Short Summary – Hannah Capulet and Marlowe Montague fall madly in love.

Beware the moors

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

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