“In Pursuit of Honor” is a well-intentioned HBO film about the U.S. Army’s horse cavalry in the bleak days of the Depression. It purports to tell the tale of the rescuing of a herd of cavalry horses scheduled to be exterminated as the Army makes the transition to mechanized units. The movie claims to be “based on a true story” and seems reasonably believable upon viewing. It was filmed in Australia and no horses were harmed in the production – just like in reality.
The movie opens with the Bonus March in Washington, D.C. in 1932. Hundreds of veterans were in the capital hoping to get their WWI bonuses early due to the Depression. The doughboys had set up a shantytown and when Congress turned them down, the Army was ordered to clear them out. A unit of cavalry was lined up to carry out Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s strong-arm tactics. Sgt. Libbey (Don Johnson) and three of his comrades (all named after characters in John Ford’s “Fort Apache”) refuse to participate and they are relieved by Maj. Hardesty (Bob Gunton). Flash forward to a dingy Western post where Libbey and his buddies are in limbo. A new arrival is Lt. Buxton (Craig Sheffer) who is there for assaulting an officer. The officer deserved it, of course. It is not Hell until the Devil arrives in the form of Lt. Col. Hardesty. Hardesty brings with him the new cavalry in the form of some tanks. The hand-writing is on the stable wall. The men are told to turn in their sabers and get rid of their excess horses, which means all the horses. Libbey: “There’s nothing left. No horses. No cavalry. No honor”.
Hardesty twirls his mustache as he orders the horses herded to Mexico to be machine gunned in a pit. You know those Mexicans and their love of horse carcasses. After a horrific scene depicting the machine gunning of the first hundred horses, Buxton convinces Libbey and his buddies to abscond with the rest of the herd. For some reason they decide to make a run for Canada instead of simply going deeper into Mexico. Huh? The villainous Hardesty is in luke-warm pursuit and manages to catch up with them right at the border.
On first thought, the movie appears to be a nice little curio about a forgotten episode in American History. The acting is good with Johnson dominating and Rod Steiger harrumphing in a slumming role. The rest of the cast is B-movieish, but adequate. Gunton is well cast as the cartoonish Hardesty. Most nudge-worthy is an early career turn by Gabrielle Anwar of “Burn Notice” fame. Her character has a lame romance with Buxton. Someone has to love humans. The movie has the inspirational music to match the theme. The scenery is not as awesome as one would expect and there is not a lot of action to compensate for it. It’s just a nice little movie that is unfortunately marred by the fact that it has no facts.
It will come as no surprise to history buffs that Hollywood sometimes stretches the truth with its “based on a true story” claim. In this case, I would have to cry “shenanigans” on that claim for this movie. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised to find that seemingly unbelievable stories have some basis in fact. This movie is the rare opposite. It turns out virtually nothing that happens in the movie is true. The Army did transition to tanks, but not as suddenly and not that early. There is no evidence to support the events in the film. No horses were killed to reduce the force. That would have made no sense economically or humanely. Also making no sense was taking the horses to Mexico to kill them and then all the way to Canada to save them. If you are going to get your script ideas from a drunken retired cavalryman, you should be more circumspect. Worse, the movie defames MacArthur. Now I am not a big MacArthur fan, but I draw the line at accusing him of being a mass murderer of horses.
My research definitely colored my opinion of the movie. It’s a C+ first impression and a D upon further review. More importantly, I’ll never trust Hollywood again.