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As beautifully photographed as any of Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs, director John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959) is a historical account of an actual event in the War Between the States, known as Grierson's Raid. During a sixteen day period in 1863, Colonel Benjamin Grierson led his Union troops across the Mississippi and into the heart of Confederate territory where he destroyed the railroad line to Vicksburg. It was a strategy that demoralized the Confederate Army and won the praise of General Grant who proclaimed it one of the most brilliant feats in military history.
But despite the battle of bullets that was being recreated for the cameras, it was John Ford's battle with the bottle behind the camera that was far more brutal. A long-time alcoholic, Ford was ordered by his doctor to abstain from drinking or he would surely die from the effects. Even though he was as stubborn a man as they come, Ford obeyed the physician's orders. Still, the absence of drink caused Ford to treat his cast and crew rougher than usual. The one who usually got the worst treatment, drink or no drink, was John Wayne, and he got it good on the set of The Horse Soldiers. Ford even demanded that Wayne also abstain from drink, even though he had no such orders from his physician. Wayne begged producer Martin Rackin to get him away from Ford's omnipresent gaze, if only for a brief moment. Rackin obliged and lied to Ford, telling him that Wayne's teeth were beginning to show up yellow on film and that he needed to take both Wayne and co-star William Holden to New Orleans to have their teeth cleaned. So the drunken trio spent a roaring night in the Crescent City, returning to a furious Ford who knew through his spies exactly how many bars they had visited. Despite the incident, Ford stayed away from drink...that is, until just after the shoot.
It turns out that Ford's friend, Fred Kennedy, a former stuntman, persuaded the director to let him perform a stunt for extra money since he was flat broke. Ford finally relented and allowed Kennedy to perform a fairly standard stunt of falling off a horse. But tragically, Kennedy broke his neck performing the stunt, and was dead on arrival at the nearest hospital. The scene showing Kennedy's fatal fall remains in the finished film. Ford was so grief-stricken by Kennedy's death that he closed down the location site and went back home, eventually finishing the final battle scene in the San Fernando Valley. He then left for Hawaii where he fell hard off the wagon.
In terms of his own career, John Wayne viewed The Horse Soldiers as a film that would allow him to funnel some of the profits into his own pet project, The Alamo (1960), which he was already in the process of casting and producing. At the same time, he was having personal problems at home. His wife, Pilar, had become addicted to barbiturates but Wayne refused to admit her to a private sanitarium. He felt they could conquer her addiction together and brought her along on location for The Horse Soldiers in Louisiana. During the filming, however, Pilar began hallucinating and slashed her wrists with a razor, at which point Wayne realized the seriousness of the situation and had her admitted to a hospital back in Encino. The incident was kept out of the papers and the public never suspected that the most popular box office star in America, which the Duke was at the time, was experiencing a personal crisis at home.
Director: John Ford
Producer: John Lee Mahin (uncredited), Martin Rackin (uncredited)
Screenplay: Harold Sinclair (story), John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin
Cinematography: William Clothier
Editor: Jack Murray
Art Direction: Frank Hotaling
Music: David Buttolph, Stan Jones
Cast: John Wayne (Colonel John Marlowe), William Holden (Major Henry 'Hank' Kendall), Constance Towers (Hannah Hunter), Judson Pratt (Sergeant Major Kirby), Hoot Gibson (Sergeant Brown).
C-120m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee