Monday, 13 December 2010
The Horse Soldiers
Any analysis of the work should probably begin with an image that succinctly establishes what the film is primarily about. On this occasion, it is an image of eight men in cavalry uniform devising plans around a table. The two leads are set-apart from their associates by subtle differences in costume: John Wayne's Colonel John Marlowe with his red neckerchief; William Holden's Major Henry Kendall in his clean, white coat. Already, Ford and his costume designer Frank Beetson are establishing these characters through their identifiable professions; Marlowe, a man of combat, Kendall, a man of medicine. The two characters are positioned on opposite sides of the table; one seated, one standing; one with hat, one without. Although these men are essentially on the same side, fighting for the same cause, their position from one another within the frame suggests their obvious differences in both ideology and approach.
From this single screen-capture and the information that it conveys we are being informed, subtly, that this is a film about conflict.
Although essentially a War Film in the Hollywood tradition, the conflict in The Horse Soldiers (1959) is not exclusive to the Civil War backdrop that is seen throughout. Rather, it is in the relationship between these two characters - where one personifies the old and the other personifies the new - and in their dalliances with the beautiful landowner Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar (Constance Towers). Like the majority of Ford's films, specifically his westerns, it is in this conflict between the old and the new that the narrative is fully developed; defining not only the dramatic motivations of the script by John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin - or even the historical re-enactments of Harold Sinclair's original novel - but in a way, every thought and decision that these characters make and the effect that these decisions have on this world, as it is presented.
The Horse Soldiers is, to a large extent, about a changing world as illustrated by its emphasis on the cross-country journey and how the landscape becomes a signifier to the unspoken emotional connotations apparent in the plot. These themes are central to several of Ford's earlier films, such as the towering masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1940), in which the family of characters travel from town to town, city to city; effectively looking for work, but only finding the wounded heart and soul of a country beaten by depression. In that film, the projections of ghost-towns or the wounded, sunken faces of what essentially could be described as the living dead, flicker, apparition-like, on the windscreen of the Joad family wagon, convey the literal desperation and depression of these people looking for a world that no longer exists.
Likewise, the nostalgic reminisces of How Green Was my Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952) show worlds that exist in the memory of their respective narrators brought into violent conflict with the actual, tangible reality of these places and the inevitability of time. There, as well as here, the intentional, bold-strokes of iconography, from the waving of the Confederate flag to the casting of Wayne himself, seem deliberate attempts to express, in the most direct and appropriate way, the vaguest remnants of historical context and the actual machinations of this world, put on screen, vividly by Ford, in a full-colour, 1.66:1 presentation, to make the best of those seemingly never-ending shots of extras - each dressed in authentic cavalry uniform - cutting a path between the two distinct halves of the horizon, or, more literally in fact, cutting the country in two.
In The Horse Soldiers, the river, which is shown in the background of several travelling sequences, becomes shorthand for this great divide; from the north and south to divisions of class, race, gender, and (lastly), the two central characters. America, like many places in the world, is a divided country; divided politically as well as culturally, between both the immigrant and indigenous populations. Ford's film communicates this rift visually, through the actual presentation of the landscape, with its dirt-roads and rivers, and through the purely metaphorical; from a pencil-lined direction on a badly folded map, to the long, stretching shadow of a window frame over the hanging, atlas-like wall plan during a discussion between both parties.
With this in mind, the last act of the film - where the destruction of the bridge illustrates the continual inability for the two sides to meet in the middle - offers one of the most interesting visual metaphors in the entire film. The conflict, both personal and political, traps these characters in their own blinkered perspective, regardless of whether or not their actual opinions on the matter have changed, for better or worse. It is the kind of ending where the closing image, of the woman looking out into the uncertain future, the country disappearing into the horizon, the inevitability of a raging battle that Ford denies us the spectacle of, suggests an almost stoic heroism reminiscent of the iconic final image of Ford's own film The Searchers (1956). However, it also suggests some element of tragedy; the endlessness of war as a machine that moves across the landscape, devouring everything. It is also, in a sense, a deliberate none-ending; these characters may have reached a kind of conclusion, but the journey, and the war itself, still continues.
Through this, we can recognise the thread of identity and the sense of personal responsibility woven througout. The idea of taking characters conditioned into thinking in a specific way - into expecting the world to conform to a certain standard built largely on class, ranking and reputation - and then seeing those beliefs shattered before their very eyes when confronted by the very real consequences of the war itself. That final image, which speaks, on one level, to a certain kind of romantic optimism, as Hannah Hunter is framed - as only John Ford could frame a shot - waving the soldiers off into battle, also carries a certain sense of disillusionment. These young men, heroic into battle, will no doubt return, if lucky, as battered and bruised as the dead-on-their-feet volunteers of the even more restlessly critical Drums Along the Mohawk (1939).
There, in the assumed emotional perspective of characters trapped in the events that exist between the titles of two other Ford movies, The Long Voyage Home (1940) and They Were Expendable (1945), John Martin Feeney makes his second film that dares to ask... What Price Glory?
The subtlety of the film's politics or its subtext jarring against the very obvious iconography of its images and sound is characteristic of Ford's work in this particular genre. The look and feel of the film might seem, at times, to be celebratory, with its bold colours and beautiful compositions combined with the rousing performance and the typical, overwhelming presence of Wayne as an avatar for the real, undying spirit of a subsequently lost America. But there's an obvious level of satire in how Ford uses these elements, which one might almost go as far as to call 'ironic'. The contrasts and conflict between the two central characters, on the page, suggests the kind of macho one-upmanship or characteristic male bonding that many expect of a film from this particular era. Yet, in the presentation, and in the incorporation of these characters into a narrative about conflict, the disparities between the two create an additional commentary on the subject itself.
The doctor's profession is one that saves lives; the soldier's is one that ends them. Through this, Ford suggests elements of guilt, honour, responsibility and a questioning of the kind of misguided patriotism that leads a country to tear itself apart. This conflict, on a personal level, could also tie in with the general themes of self-analysis and reflection; those two memorable shots where characters catch their individual reflections in mirrors, says a great deal about how they, as individuals, view themselves within this world of civil war; implicating them to some extent through ignorance or sheer wrongheadedness, or forcing them to look deeper into the mindset of war and how this conflict has changed them, physically as well as psychologically.
In the first of these moments of reflection, Marlowe, distorted by the convexed shape of the glass, studies his features in the hallway mirror of Hannah Hunter's opulent southern mansion. The distortion reduces Marlowe considerably, pushing him back, further into the distance, while exaggerating the size of the door and the picture behind him. The mirror image literally reduces his stature, revealing a small man at odds with the immovable presence that we expect from Wayne and have previously seen in action. The second shot comes much later in the film, following the death of Hunter's chaperone Lukey (Althea Gibson). Here, Hunter is confronted by the face of a girl she no longer recognises. Literally transformed, she is now no longer the spoilt little rich girl waiting out the conflict back home, but someone else; someone debased by war and reminded of the ugliness of the thing by the cracked and filthy mirror she now finds herself in.
Such shots carry the same kind of sadness expressed in the unforgettable moment of self-reflection/recognition in Ford's aforementioned The Grapes of Wrath; in particular, the scene in which Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) studies her face reflected in a dusty windowpane and enjoys a brief moment of warm contentment brought on by a nostalgia almost immediately snuffed out by the crippling destitution and uncertainty of her all-too-painful existence.
Ford's characters in The Horse Soldiers may not be dreaming of better times, or indeed, taking comfort in nostalgic reminisce, but they're being forced to ask important questions. Moral questions that may have previously never been explored, at least, by these particular characters, but now, when challenged by the perspectives of others and forced to see things from a different point of view, the actuality of their situation is changed considerably. This revelation, as the two male protagonists eventually begin to see the situation through the eyes of the other, is best illustrated by the scene in which Wayne's previously gung-ho, no-nonsense Marlowe tends the bedside of a fatally wounded young soldiers and sees, perhaps for the first time, where this level of patriotism has led him. The subsequent scene, in which the character explodes, emotionally, having been goaded somewhat by Hunter, is one of Wayne's greatest screen performances; as the confliction and the confusion of what he's feeling in relation to how he feels he should feel, is brilliantly communicated.
The tragedy here, hinted at throughout by Ford's clever framing of events, is that the war will continue, long after the closing credits, long after the Civil War and on, into the following centuries. The great divide - be it north or south, east and west - will continue to widen. The visible scars marked in the landscape - from marching soldiers, on horseback or otherwise - connect each generation, from World War II, to Vietnam, to the Falklands, to Iraq and Afghanistan. The propensity for the species to decimate itself is a torch, handed down from generation to generation; from the marching men on horseback that open the film, silhouetted, as if to imply anonymity (the uniform replacing the notion of the individual with the "unit"), to the overpowering sight of the young children, armed and in uniform, marching ever onward, into battle.
Here, the literal thin blue line that once again divides the landscape, splitting the cinematic image into two recognisable 'sides' (contra and pro) suggests the possibility of all future conflicts. These children become the next link in the chain, and their children, and their children's children, will likewise pick up this torch when called upon by their country to do the right-good thing.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Ford's film is its ability to present the gross futility of war while simultaneously suggesting, on one level at least, the necessity of it. However, by denying the audience the lengthy battle sequence that was initially scripted to end the film and choosing instead to close on a somewhat more enigmatic image that seems to suggest so much more than the potential bloodshed and cannon fire ever could, the notion of a commentary on war, or indeed, on conflict in general, is so much more profound. And this is what separates The Horse Soldiers from films like Platoon (1986) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), where the "horrors of war" can only be communicated by presenting the violence as something visceral or intense. However, in presenting this intensity through the medium of cinema, the conflict itself can only become exhilarating for the viewing audience, thus, destroying its intent.
By emphasising this moment of human endurance - with the conflict stretching out, beyond the horizon - these closing scenes from The Horse Soldiers suggests the effect that war has on the individual, as well as the country itself.