Movies and Historical Memory: In our ‘This Day in History’ posting for today (17 April), we feature ‘Grierson’s Raid’ – an episode from the US Civil War. Without the 1959 movie ‘Horse Soldiers’, this raid would have been known only by US Civil War historians. Instead, this is an example where the movie (arguably) is the historical record. In which case, the John Ford directed narrative is the historical narrative, and the John Wayne portrayal of ‘John Marlowe’ provides our understanding of the Union commander. In short, historical memory is malleable by the story-tellers. John Ford knew his audience – he invested a life-time in refining the ‘Western’ movie genre – and in ‘Horse Soldiers’ he gave the audience a Western. This genre is typified by the following elements:
- A journey – the physical journey is a metaphor for the inner journey experienced by the key protagonists. ‘John Marlowe’, the tough railroad labourer turned cavalry commander drives his men to achieve their mission. Along the way his hardened exterior, wrought by earlier personal pain, is softened by the experience.
- A struggle – John Marlowe battles the Confederates, his subordinates (most notably, his medical officer played by William Holden), nature, and a southern belle (played by Constance Towers).
- An enemy – the enemy is a distant enemy to be feared and hated, and assembled in mobs with limited differentiation of individuals (in the movie, bodies of Confederate troops are typically glimpsed in the distance as the pursing enemy). Over time, this fear and hatred is softened by personal experience with individuals. In conventional Westerns, the ‘enemy’ (Native Americans) are depicted as ‘noble savages’. In ‘Horse Soldiers’, the Confederates gradually take human form with a breadth of emotion that encompasses love, reckless courage and military chivalry.
- Archetypical characters – tough, time-worn leaders; tough, quirky subordinates; naive outsiders (the ‘tender foot’); and sensitive and nurturing women.
The real story is somewhat different. To find this story, we must peel back the narrative layers. When we peel pack the John Ford narrative, we find the historical novel upon which it was based (Harold Sinclair, ‘Horse Soldiers’, 1956). In turn we peel back the novel to reveal a work of historical scholarship (Dee Brown, ‘Grierson’s Raid’, 1954). Finally, we peel back the historical scholarship we find surviving historical documents from the time.
Along the way, we find the story is much richer and more complex than we first thought. John Wayne’s portrayal of ‘John Marlowe’ bears little resemblance to the historical Benjamin Grierson. John Wayne played, well, John Wayne: a larger-than-life character that appeared in many military and western dramas – the tough, no nonsense leader and outdoors man. A man at home with barking orders, enduring harship, and riding horses.
Grierson, on the other hand was not your classic western hero – at the beginning of the US Civil War, he was a struggling music teacher, with a child-hood fear of horses. He quickly rose through the officer ranks – at a time when the overwhelming demand for temporary officers was filled by a combination of direct appointment and election – to command the 6th Illinois Cavalry Regiment in 1862. By 1863, by means of simple seniority, he was senior regiment commander in his brigade when the brigade command position fell vacant. He was given temporary command of the brigade, and by a matter of chance was in command of the brigade at the time the Raid was planned. There is not much obvious similarity between Marlow and Grierson. Yet Grierson’s ability to command a brigade (and later a division) and lead it through a difficult mission, suggests strength of character and leadership unexpected of a ‘tender foot’ in the classic Western cast of characters.