No horses, no cavalry, no honor” is the credo of five renegade U.S. cavalrymen who defy orders to save 400 Army horses from being slaughtered in this first-rate HBO original, based on oral histories. While it may not be to everyone’s liking, a finer illustration of the link between horses and honor probably won’t be seen until Cormac McCarthy’s novel “All the Pretty Horses” is lensed.
Handsome production takesfull advantage of Australian scenery as a backdrop for the Marlboro-man ethos. Don Johnson and Craig Sheffer deliver the authentic dialogue in a style that feels true to the time period.
It’s 1934 and the Army is attempting to modernize. Sgt. John Libbey (Johnson) and three fellow cavalrymen have been exiled to a base in the Southwest after refusing Gen. MacArthur’s orders to attack protesting veterans.
Sheffer’s Lt. Buxton, also prone to insubordination, joins them. They briefly serve under Col. Stuart (Rod Steiger), who retires as the cavalry — on its last legs — is merged with the infantry. When their sabers are taken away it’s an ego blow, but when they receive orders to dispose of excess horses, honor and conscience are at stake.
Seasoned Libbey and greenhorn Buxton try to lead their equine charges to safety, taking a 2,000-mile jaunt north. An Army unit with mechanized weaponry gives chase. Meanwhile, Col. Stuart and his journalist daughter (Gabrielle Anwar) campaign for the mutineers.
A sign of the story’s times is that there’s a lot of talk about insanity, the implication being that mechanizing the Army is close to madness. This is countered by MacArthur’s prescient argument that unless it modernizes, the Army won’t be able to stand up to Hitler and the Japanese. Still, the righteous film argues against all forms of perceived dishonor in the modern world, including the automobile.
Outstanding script by Dennis Lynton Clark has some logistical holes but is well-executed by director Ken Olin.
Performances by the two male leads and their cohorts are aptly rugged. Other Army officers, most notably Robert Gunton’s Col. Hardesty, also evoke the period and relevant tensions. Less convincing are Anwar and Steiger, who is superb but miscast.
They definitely shoot horses in this one, and, to the filmmakers’ credit, it’s hard to believe the disclaimer about no animals being harmed. Animal lovers won’t want to watch as 100 crying horses are machine-gunned. Everything in the film, including this graphic depiction of violence toward horses, is beautifully photographed.