Most borderline film buffs are familiar with John Ford's accidental cavalry trilogy--Fort Apache , She Wore a Yellow Ribbon , and Rio Grande , all based on short stories by James Warner Bellah--as well they should be. But far fewer are aware of Ford's three later cavalry epics.
The Horse Soldiers  starring John Wayne, William Holden, and Constance Towers, might be the best of the three as a film. It is drawn from the true story of Benjamin Grierson's full-speed strike at and push through the Confederate States of America. (Sadly, Grierson himself makes an onscreen appearance in neither name nor spirit.) Wayne is the gruff blue-collar commanding officer, Holden is the idealist medical man at war with his own comrade, and Ms. Towers is the fiery Southern belle stuck in their accompaniment. It's really not a bad Civil War movie. Sometimes contrived, sometimes beautiful, always entertaining. I'll be watching it again soon.
Sergeant Rutledge  wants to be a very admirable film. In a way it is--just not a very good one. Woody Strode is the title character; Jeffrey Hunter is his commanding officer and defense counsel. Constance Towers again functions as love interest. The film is a courtroom drama that plays much the way these things would years later in a little TV show called "JAG." The plot--the evidence that the sergeant has sexually murdered a white girl, his fearful flight, his heroism against renegade indians, and Hunter's quest to bring him back to be cleared at trial--plays out in flashbacks while Hunter makes daring courtroom theatrics. Did I mention that his character isn't an actual lawyer? Did I mention that he objects to the most idiotic things? That the court sides with him on these things? More importantly, did I mention that (even though the screenplay was co-written by my beloved Bellah) this film has nothing to do with history, or even how racial matters were treated in the era in which it is set? I wanted to love this movie before I had even seen it: It has a great writer and a great director, and is ostensibly about the Buffalo Soldiers so ridiculously ignored by Hollywood. Sadly, I cannot like this film: I do not find it honest, or even particularly interesting. And believe me, we've all seen the ending on "JAG" a dozen times, only "JAG" does it better.
Cheyenne Autumn  is definitely the most epic of these three movies. Far better researched than the previous film (though James Stewart's cameo as Wyatt Earp has nothing to do with reality and should be considered poor comic relief at best), it should hold your interest despite its hefty runtime. Several hundred of the Cheyenne nation, holed by treaty in an arid land unlike their own, are slowly dying. The ragged cavalrymen assigned to guard and care for them are all but comatose. The Quakers there to teach them are ignored or patronized by both groups. And now the Cheyenne are on the move north to their home. The cavalry, the press, and indeed the United States government itself are all put a bit off-balance by the events that unfold at once all too quickly and all too slowly. While it would help if the Cheyenne were actually portrayed by Cheyenne, I give this film high marks. And I can't think of a more historically-founded John Ford film off-hand.