Cane River. Steel Magnolias. Horse Soldiers. Natchitoches Films.

Richard Romain in the 1982 film “Cane River.

Natchitoches is best known for the 1985 film Steel Magnolias and somewhat known for the important – and for many, the much better John Ford movie Horse Soldiers. Now, happily for local historians and consumers alike another regional film has come to light, Cane River.

Indeed, the charming burg has virtually converted Steel Magnolias into a cottage industry, with events, tours, and products poaching on that coat-tail. Meanwhile, an apparently less visible but by no means less engaged echelon of folks show interest in the location because of John Ford’s choice for shooting the Duke featured film Horse Soldiers, set in the sanguinary Civil War era. Connie Castile, a colleague and faculty member with the moving image program component in the English Department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette bugged my ear about the long-lost Cane River suddenly seeing light of day.

 . . . the charming burg has virtually converted Steel Magnolias into a cottage industry, with events, tours, and products poaching on that coat-tail . . . 

 

Peter Travers wrote of Steel Magnolias in Rolling Stone in 1985 that there was “No use fighting it. This laugh-getting, tear-jerking, part-affecting, part-appalling display of audience manipulation is practically critic-proof.”  Explaining the details of Robert Harling’s off-Broadway play based on his mother, sister, and several friends who meet and palaver in a Louisiana beauty parlor. “Now Harling,” the reviewer wrote, “ . . . has gussied up his stage hit for the movies. And producer Ray Stark and director Herbert Ross have wisely hired the luminous likes of Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts. The result can best be described as shamelessly entertaining.” So it’s no wonder that upon release once the movie was shot in and around Natchitoches, Louisiana it would be taken to heart.

 . . .  it’s no wonder that upon release once the movie was shot in and around Natchitoches, Louisiana it would be taken to heart . . . 

 

The Horse Soldiers

The 1951 staff review in Variety was typically industry wise and informed, “Give John Ford a company of brawny men,” it said, “let him train his cameras on the US cavalry and provide a script with plenty of action and he’s off on the road to glory. In The Horse Soldiers, which involves a little-known incident in the Civil War, all these elements are present.” With: John Wayne William Holden Constance Towers Althea Gibson Hoot Gibson Anna Lee, The Horse Soldiers is the only Ford film on which a primary figure literally dies. Ford worked with what amounted to an ensemble case, using many of the same professionals again and again. So, when a long-time stunt double died in a fatal fall, it was such a shock that the production almost came to a close.

“Give John Ford a company of brawny men,” it said, “let him train his cameras on the US cavalry and provide a script with plenty of action and he’s off on the road to glory . . .”

 

In any event, it did not. Perhaps that’s why the Variety review was slightly tepid, closing by saying, “… but with all of Ford’s skill for staging battle scenes, and his superb eye for pictorial composition, the film is extremely uneven. The long shots of men on horses tend to become tedious and they considerably slow up the flow of the story. Also, the dramatic scenes involving John Wayne, William Holden and newcomer Constance Towers don’t come off with much conviction. William Clothier’s photography is outstanding. Some of the scenes have the quality of paintings. As in all of the Ford films, the music has a fitting, masculine quality, being sung mostly by a male chorus.” In spite of this, if women seem to love Steel Magnolias, a somewhat smaller audience of men, especially amateur historians interested in local Civil War battle sites, are curious about The Horse Soldiers having been shot in and around Natchitoches.

“… but with all of Ford’s skill for staging battle scenes, and his superb eye for pictorial composition, the film is extremely uneven . . . “

 

Cane River – An All African American Film

John Wirt’s coverage in The New Orleans Advocate, October 16, 2018, Rescued from a studio vault, ‘Cane River’ screened after three decades, describes the exciting news of another Louisiana film, apparently featuring an entire African American cast with former LSU Tigers wide receiver Richard Romain the leading man.

According to Wirt’s piece, “’Cane River,’ a groundbreaking African-American independent film, was lost for more than three decades. Now it’s found . . . “ The film was set to show at The New Orleans Film Festival. “Cane River,” is a history-laced love story set in Natchitoches Parish; it featured an all-black cast, was made by an all-black crew, and was financed by the New Orleans’ Rhodes family. According to the piece in the Advocate, “… Richard Pryor, then shooting ‘The Toy’ in Baton Rouge, attended the screening [in New Orleans in 1982] The famous actor and comedian wore a disguise and sat in the back of theater . . . “ We have no record of what he thought about it.

The Advocate coverage notes that “Cane River” didn’t get the national release that Horace Jenkins hoped for and that by 1982 it’s creator and his companion, New Orleans businesswoman Carol Balthazar, were still pursuing distribution for the film, up until his death on Dec. 3, 1982 – efforts then fell into abeyance for three decades.

Happily, according to Wirt’s description, negatives of “Cane River” came to light, and wheels began to turn. “In 2013, IndieCollect, an organization that rescues, preserves and seeks archival homes for unclaimed independent films, found the prints.” The journalist continues,  “identifying films in the DuArt vault requires detective work. DuArt’s records only reflect whatever company paid for a film’s processing, said IndieCollect President Sandra Schulberg. Ninety percent of those companies have gone out of business. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Academy Archive accepted ‘Cane River’ sight unseen.” Happily, the print has been saved.

A review in the New York Times delves a little deeper, “ . . . Cane River itself is a historically multicultural area in Natchitoches Parish in Louisiana, and the movie, in addition to being a Romeo-Juliet romance, deals with land swindles perpetrated against people of color, and ‘colorism’— that is, social hierarchy as dictated by skin tone . . .. “ John Anderson points out, writing in September 2016. In any event, Louisiana’s rich legacy of film production has thus been further enriched.

* I hope this is part one of a two-part “piece” dealing with this story. Thanks again to Connie Castile for shooting me basic info about this.

 

 

 

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