This blog post is part of the Third Golden Boy Blogathon: A William Holden Centenary Celebration.
‘The Horse Soldiers’ (1959) is a John Wayne film, but from the very first time I watched it, my attention was focused on another actor: William Holden as the compassionate, brave, and wonderful Major Henry Kendall. It’s the one Holden role where I love and appreciate him wholeheartedly, and while I wasn’t quick enough to put ‘The Horse Soldiers’ down for last year’s blogathon, I was this year (obviously).
So. To set the stage. ‘The Horse Soldiers’ is a movie about some sort of suicide mission that John Wayne’s character, Colonel Marlowe, has to undertake along with a bunch of his men. I’m not sure of all the details, but suffice to say that it’s Dangerous and Serious. While Marlowe and his brother officers discuss the ins and outs of said mission, a quiet, unassuming man walks into camp and asks to be directed to the officers’ meeting.
Just a few moments after joining the officers, Kendall already has a problem (a big problem) because Colonel Marlowe clearly has it in for him. It’s nothing personal, really. You see, Kendall is a surgeon. And Marlowe hates surgeons, hates the entire medical profession, for reasons that aren’t explained until much later but you can kind of guess it’s something to do with his family because…what else? Anyway, yeah, Kendall’s in a big situation because Marlowe outranks him and, y’know, he’s played by John Wayne who can be truly terrifying in a bad mood. Kendall, however, doesn’t back down (he’s to accompany Marlowe & Company on their trek) and basically gives as good as he gets. (In a later scene, when Marlowe states gruffly that any wounded will be left to the clemency of the enemy, Kendall inquiries “Including yourself?” with a little smile on his face.)
Ever since Doc2 became my favorite character on Combat!, amazing doctors, surgeons, and nurses have cropped up throughout fiction and I’ve liked/loved each and every one. John Watson, Julia Hoffman, Tiberius Lucius Justinianus…the list goes on and on and Kendall is definitely high on it. There’s something about how doctors put the needs of others before their own and are so courageous and awesome and skilled. (I understand not all doctors/nurses/other medical personnel are so perfect. But still.)
Anyway, to return to the story, the troop (is it a troop or some other military body?) sets out to a rousing chorus of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’ which makes me snicker. Because, you know, that whole scene in ‘Stalag 17’. It cracks me up. (Not the bit in ‘Stalag 17’, which is actually chill-worthy and NOT in a good way. Just…the connection. And I just over-explained that wayyy too much.) ANYWAY. They march along (or ride along, because they’re horse soldiers) and when they stop for rest, a soldier comes up to Kendall and informs him that there’s a woman giving birth in a nearby cabin and the family would like a doctor’s help. Of course Kendall goes to help them and ends up delivering a healthy baby, just before Marlowe orders Kendall to never help civilians again during his tenure as an army surgeon and places him under officer’s arrest.
“You’re an officer in the Union army, under oath,” Marlowe says. “I took an older oath before that one,” Kendall answers. (Awesome dialogue is awesome. And awesome characters are even better!)
Stuff happens and the troop ends up at the home of Miss Hannah Hunter, a Southern belle who loathes Yankees but does an admirable acting job, what with inviting Marlowe and his officers (including Kendall) to dine with her. Everyone’s rather besotted with her, expect Marlowe and Kendall, but it’s Kendall who’s actually suspicious of Hannah – Marlowe is just grumpy overall. Those suspicions turn out to be on point and the troop ends up having to take Hannah and her maid along with them.
This post is getting long, so I’ll just list a few more things that make Kendall that much more awesome.
~He doesn’t fall in love with Hannah, so there isn’t a stupid love triangle. And he does end up respecting her a lot as she changes and matures. Which is awesome. They work well together, as doctor and nurse.
~Kendall has a friend in the Confederate army who’s really cool and he still acknowledges/talks to his friend even though Marlowe looks askance at fraternizing with the enemy.
~He works so hard to keep the troop healthy and together and it’s horrible when that one soldier has to have an amputation because he didn’t listen to what Kendall told him. (Even worse when the same soldier dies soon after.)
~Kendall puts up with a LOT from Marlowe before he finally snaps. And it’s rather frightening in an epic way when he does break. (Marlowe was a total jerk in the scene when it happens, by the way.)
~And, finally, the thing that made me truly love Kendall the very first time I watched ‘The Horse Soldiers’: he stays behind with the wounded men when Marlowe and what remains of the troop escape to freedom. Kendall could have gotten away and left the wounded to the Confederate army, but he stayed behind to do all he could for the men in his care. “Medicine’s where you find it,” he says to Marlowe. “Even in Andersonville.”
William Holden portrayed Major Kendall with a warmth, seriousness, and steadiness that I don’t another actor could have pulled off in such a perfect way (Glenn Ford may have managed it, but maybe not). It’s the one of the only truly likable roles I’ve seen Holden play and one that I’m sure will remain my favorite of all his films.