Monday, June 6, 2011

The Horse Soldiers Blu-ray Review

Like most men, I’m a big fan of John Wayne and his movies.  My father introduced Wayne into my life with movies like North to Alaska, The Alamo, Rio Bravo and more. Despite being a huge fan of the man, I still haven’t seen all of his movies since he made so many during his long career.  The Horse Soldiers was one of those movies that I had never seen until now.  The film is based on the true-life raid by Col. Benjamin Grierson who, began his rampage through the South (known as Grierson’s Raid) from LeGrange, Tennessee, in April of 1863.  Directed by the legendary John Ford and co-starring the great William Holden, I was really looking forward to this one.  Did this movie live up to my expectations?  Read on and find out…

Film (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

John Ford and John Wayne made a fantastic thematic trilogy with Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande setting the gold standard for cavalry movies.  While this movie has its share of good moments, it never reaches the same level of greatness.  Wayne and Holden are excellent as usual in the movie and Constance  Towers is a nice addition as a sly southern woman who crosses their path.
The movie begins when Union Army Col. John Marlowe (John Wayne) meets with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, head of the Union forces and is tasked with a mission to wreak havoc behind enemy lines.  Marlowe plans a daring raid on the main supply depot, Newton Station which is over three hundred miles behind enemy lines.  Just when things seem to be going well for Marlowe, he is assigned an army doctor named Henry Kendall (William Holden) who will be a part of his brigade.  To say that Marlowe is unhappy about this addition would be an understatement since he has hated all doctors since he lost his wife due to an incompetent doctor.
The conflict between Marlowe and Kendall starts right away and continues throughout the movie, which offers a lot of humor and drama to the movie and proves to be the highlight of the movie.   They don’t seem to agree on anything as Marlowe favors speed even if that means leaving wounded men behind, which is something Kendall fundamentally opposes.  Things don’t get any better when Kendall holds up the brigade to deliver a baby for one of the local slaves.   Furious at the delay, Marlowe places him under officer’s arrest and informs him that the doctor’s sole duty is to serve the army.
Later upon arriving at the plantation known as Greenbriar Landing, they are welcomed by Hannah Hunter with typical southern hospitality.  Hunter lives there alone with her black maid Lukey (Althea Gibson) who seems as surprised as the Union soldiers when her master invites Marlowe and his men to dinner.  Her motivations become clear when Hannah is caught eavesdropping to Marlowe’s officer meeting by Kendell who hadn’t been invited to the meeting.
Realizing that if he left Hannah behind, she would hastily inform nearby Confederate soldiers about their upcoming attack on Newton Station, Marlowe is forced to bring her and Lukey along with them.  Of course, this just makes everything more difficult with Hannah doing everything in her power to escape and warn others of the attack, which only makes everyone more stressed and exacerbates the already heated feud between Marlowe and Kendell.  By the end of the film however, all of them will have had time to reflect on their positions and unsurprisingly, everyone grudgingly changes ever so slightly.
The film’s climax at Newton Station and their subsequent race to safety is well staged but the ending of the movie seemed very abrupt.  I’ve read some reports that when stunt-man Fred Kennedy died accidentally while filming that Ford halted the picture and never really had the desire to finish it as originally planned.  With all of the people involved in this movie, my expectations were for a better movie but I realize that that’s a little unfair to the movie which on it’s own is a decent movie.  It’s just when it’s compared to the rest of the Ford/Wayne canon that it pales in comparison.  Wayne once again shows that he was not only a master of action but also a great actor as well.  His scene where he movingly explains his hatred for doctors and the loss of his wife is powerful and shows his wide range as an actor.  Holden’s sardonic doctor also has many nice moments in the film and he shares great chemistry with Wayne.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The movie’s 1080p (1.66:1) transfer is a lot better than DVD quality but could have been a lot better if some extra time and money had been spent on a complete restoration.   White specks flicker throughout the movie and there were even some scratches as well.  Colors were good for the most part but the quality was never consistent.  Sometimes the picture looked bright and other times look dim or washed out. There’s some nice detail in some scenes but it was also inconsistent.  Black levels are decent but nothing spectacular as is the contrast.  There’s a heavy layer of grain that permeates the movie that could have benefited from some judicial use of DNR.  For an old catalog title, this is pretty much what I expected to get, but I was hoping for more.

Audio (3 out of 5 stars) 

The Horse Soldiers’ DTS-HD Mono mix is kind of a mixed bag.  While I would have preferred a new lossless 5.1 track, this is the original mix in a lossless format which is the next best thing.  With the front speakers being the only ones to get any action, a lot of immersion is lost but on the plus side it sounds clear and there aren’t any annoying audio defects which are common to hear on these older movies.  Dialogue is clear as are the sound effects, and the wide selection of period songs also sound decent.  Overall this is an acceptable mix but much like the video quality, it could have been a lot better.

Special Features (1 out of 5 stars) 

The only extra on here is the movie’s theatrical trailer which is presented in high definition.

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars) 

While this movie isn’t one of the best Ford/Wayne collaborations, I did enjoy it and would recommend it to any fan of Wayne, Ford, or Holden.  I wish more time had been spent restoring the movie and adding some special features, but this Blu-ray looks and sounds a lot better than previous DVD editions.
Order your copy today!

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