The year was 1935. The U.S. Army, under the direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was modernizing. The cavalry was being phased out. But old traditions died hard, especially for five soldiers stationed in Arizona who defied a direct order by MacArthur to take hundreds of horses to Mexico and destroy them. The men stole the horses and drove them from Sonora, Mexico, to safety in Canada.
HBO's "In Pursuit of Honor," which premieres Saturday, dramatizes this little-known chapter in Army history. Don Johnson stars as the mission's leader, Regimental Sgt. Major John Patrick Libbey. Craig Sheffer, Gabrielle Anwar and Rod Steiger also are featured in the film shot in Australia and New Zealand last fall. Ken Olin ("Doing Time on Maple Drive") directed from Dennis Lynton Clark's script.
Clark, who penned the 1978 Western "Comes a Horseman," learned about the incident as a 7-year-old living with his grandparents on their Montana farm. "I heard this story from three of the actual participants," he says. "They worked for my grandfather. They had sneaked back in the United States and worked as cowboys. This was about 13 years after the actual event."
The Army kept the event quiet. "It's oral history," Clark explains. "God, my veteran's pension is going to be taken away when this comes out."
But the tale of the cavalrymen's saving expedition never left his memory bank. "I grew up around working cowboys--heroes to a child," Clark explains. "I was in the Army from 1961 to '64 with an armored division. If you don't know anything about armored divisions, they are intensely proud of the cavalry tradition."
In fact, his commanding officer was a former cavalryman. "One day in a drunken moment, he rambled on about (the incident) and said, 'Oh, God. I must not talk about this.' He had actually been in the cavalry in the '30s when this was happening. He was not part of it, but he remembered the story and the very dear friends."
When Clark mustered out of the service in 1964, he decided to write the script. It was John Wayne who encouraged him. "I went to high school for one year with Pat Wayne, his son, and got to meet his father. It was not a friendship or nothing close, but one time he kind of looked down at me and said, 'Kid, you got to write that story. I want to do it.' That was in the mid-'60s."
Other jobs and personal problems put the script on the back burner for more than 20 years. Finally, in the late '80s, Clark started to write. "It fell into place in late 1991," he says.
Clark sees "Pursuit" as a heroic story. "It's a very hard thing when you are in the Army to disobey an order or take this kind of radical step," Clark says about the soldiers' disobeying a direct order.
None of the names in the film are real, save for Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur. "Libbey is a composite of two people--my real training sergeant; the real character who Libbey is based on I knew from 1948 until he died last year at the age of 96. He was a good cowboy."
Don Johnson believes Libbey is one of the better-written characters he's played in his 20-plus-year career. Libbey's certainly 180 degrees removed from slick "Miami Vice" cop Sonny Crockett, the character who skyrocketed Johnson to TV superstardom in the mid-'80s.
"There are a lot of layers," Johnson explains. "There is nothing more encouraging for an actor to find a character that ... as you are playing him, more and more of who he is starts to be revealed to you. And you are able to reveal it on the screen."
The actor was drawn to the project because of the story. "It's always the story," Johnson says. "If the story works, then you try to uncover what is behind this character."
Ken Olin, who played Michael Steadman on "thirtysomething" and has directed two acclaimed TV films ("Doing Time on Maple Drive" and "The Broken Chord") as well as the theatrical "White Fang II," has long wanted to do a project for HBO.
"I think if there is an arena now for doing work which examines the contemporary American landscape--politically, socially and psychologically, it seems that HBO is the place that is doing it," he explains.
"They are taking risks and are examining certain issues. I have always been drawn to more political material or material that has to do with contemporary ethics. One of the things that interested me about the story is that it did explore certain political issues, but it didn't do it in any sort of direct or cloying fashion. I tend to be somewhat drawn to material that is invested in some sense of heroism, and this was certainly like that."
"Pursuit" also explores the inevitability of change. "Hopefully, it doesn't take the point of view that change is bad--just an examination of the price that is paid and what is given up in the pursuit of those changes."
In some respects, Olin says, the film is almost theatrical in its scope because of its sweeping scenes involving more than 400 horses. Though thematically complex, the story is "very simple," he says.
"It doesn't explore high-profile people; it doesn't deal with a controversial case. It's about a group of men who took horses from Mexico to Canada because they believed in saving their lives."
In preparation, Olin watched John Ford and Sam Peckinpah Westerns. "There is a certain code to those movies, a certain amount of restraint. People don't speak their feelings. We do certain things in the movie that are flat-out Western. We have a full-out horse chase which is pretty extraordinary. There are some action sequences. But it's very much a movie about a code--doing the right thing and the price that's paid. It very much evolves at its own pace. It's not a short movie."
"Pursuit" also explores a time when America was at a crossroads. "There were certain pressures in the world that were undeniable. We had to move into that direction (of modernization) and that was the function of MacArthur. That's his point of view. Hopefully, it is not a superficial rendering of his point of view. The movie is very much about the loss of a way of life."
The production, shot in just 29 days, was a difficult one for for cast and crew. "It was hard on everybody," Olin acknowledges. "It's physically demanding, and it's emotionally and psychologically draining because you are not controlling elements that are rational, in terms of talking to (the horses)."
The production transported 150 horses at all times and picked up 150 to 250 more at each location. "We worked within a 2,000-mile radius," Olin says. "We had really good wranglers. They had a really hard job and the actors became really good at it. There are a number of scenes that you will see that it is apparent that the actors were wrangling the animals. The movie looks like it was hard to make in some places."
"Pursuit," Johnson says, was arduous for him because of the remote locations and unstable weather conditions. "It was cold, it was hot. I was talking to somebody at one time and they said, 'Are you in the outback?' And I said, 'Buster, I am at the backdoor of the outback.' "
Johnson was surprised how effectively Australia doubled for the United States. "We traveled up and down the east coast of Australia to find the diverse locations," he says. "We shot in New Zealand as well, for the Rockies. When I was in New Zealand, I was reminded of what America was like when I was a kid--I mean 7, 8 and 9 years old. It was so pristine and clean and direct and straightforward. It is an extraordinary place."
Before filming began, Johnson sat down with Olin to discuss his vision of the film. "I said, 'This is a wonderful piece. The only thing that could go wrong with it is if it was made from a sentimental point of view.' And (Olin) said, 'I couldn't agree with you more.' We really stayed true to the inner character of the situation. It would have been very easy to make 'My Friend Flicka,' but it's a man's movie about men and horses. It is very romantic--the code that they had."
Johnson, Olin says, had "been working very hard on taking care of himself and taking care of his work. Don is one of those actors who has the ability to bring you to him. I think what people haven't seen in him for awhile is that he has an inner strength that he renders in this movie. For me, I have never up to now had a collaboration with an actor of that experience and intelligence. Don is very conscious of not being sentimental, and yet he was available when I would tell him (to show emotion). You wouldn't want this to be a sentimental performance, but Don has scenes in this where he let (his feelings) come through."
"I had the best working relationship with him that I have had with any director in a long time," Johnson offers. "I was in a very good space to do this picture. I was in a very vulnerable and open space, which is interesting playing a guy who is private and shut down. What is interesting about it is that he is shut down, but there is a lot going on (inside)."
Johnson believes the film will appeal to both men and women. Especially females. "Women are going to like it in that it's a man's movie about the West, but it's from the heart. And it's been my experience that women can respond to that."
"In Pursuit of Honor" premieres Saturday at 8:30 p.m. on HBO.