THE HORSE SOLDIERS, John Ford's only attempt at tackling the subject of the Civil War, is based on Grierson's Raid, part of the Union's assault on Vicksburg in April 1863. After a number of failed efforts at taking the Southern stronghold, Union leaders assign Col. John Marlowe (John Wayne), a railroad designer in civilian life, to lead a cavalry detachment to destroy a vital railroad hub at Newton Station, far behind Confederate lines. Marlowe's unit includes Major Kendall (William Holden), a cynical physician disgusted by the notion that there's glory in the carnage, and the politically ambitious Colonel Secord (Willis Bouchey). Marlowe temporarily appropriates the plantation of Southerner Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) while in transit and is forced to take her along, in lieu of killing her, after she overhears his plans for Newton Station. As their journey continues, Marlowe realizes that he is much more interested in Hannah than in her political sympathies. Wayne and Holden give gritty, soulful performances, and William Clothier's photography is outstanding in a film that delves beneath simplistic notions of heroism to reveal something more complicated, grisly, and real.
A hardened Union colonel embarks on a dangerous mission to sabotage a railroad line. Saddled with a quarrelsome doctor and a Southern belle, the colonel drives his troops deep into rebel territory.