How one family became entwined with the filming of ‘The Horse Soldiers’

Alex "Rawhide" Nobles as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant riding his horse, Pistol, during filming of "The Horse Soldiers" starring John Wayne

By Alex Nobles Jr., A Natchitoches Times exclusive

Sixty- one years to the day prior to June 17, 2020, a major event occurred which impacted Natchitoches and the Natchitoches area. The event was the “World Premier” of well-known Hollywood producer John Ford’s film “The Horse Soldiers” on June 17, 1959. The movie starred John Wayne, William Holden and Constance Towers. As reported in a Shreveport Times article dated on Sunday, May 24, 1959, the movie is “based largely on Grierson’s Raid that severed the South in 1863 and cleared the way for the capture of Vicksburg and Sherman’s march to the sea.”

Another important note is that this movie was the first multi-million-dollar motion picture to be filmed in the Ark-La-Tex. My name is Alex Nobles Jr. I am better known as “Junior Nobles” in my immediate and expanded family and to my friends. I was born and raised in Natchitoches and Natchitoches area. I am a retired 70-year-old father and grandfather living in Fort Myers, Fla., with my wife Dennette. My inspiration to write this story can be best described as follows: Recently, I watched a three-part mini-series on the History Channel entitled “Grant.”

Watching the series brought back a lot of memories from a time in my life ranging from when I was nine years old in 1958, until my early 20s in the early 1970s. This story is a chronicle of events occurred that allowed a local Natchitoches area family to become entwined, directly and indirectly, in the tapestry of making the film. The above comments will become more relevant as I write this story.

This saga begins when in 1958, well known United Artists producer John Ford made the decision to film the movie in the Natchitoches area. A small part of the movie was also shot in Mississippi. One of the first things John Ford did in preparations to make this movie was to dispatch United Artist Chief Wrangler Gordon Jones to the Natchitoches area. Jones’ first two objectives were to gather enough horses and to find someone, preferably local, who was familiar with horses and who knew people who had horses.

When Jones arrived in the Natchitoches area a twist of fate had him driving through Clarence. Clarence, in 1958, was a very small community having essentially one red light along with a gas station, a small restaurant, a bus station and a small strip motel. The gas station and the restaurant were located across the street from the bus station and motel. The relevance of the above descriptions will become clear. As Jones first drove into Clarence, he noticed the restaurant and decided to stop in for something to eat. After finishing his meal, Jones went over to the motel and checked into a room there.

From left are Rawhide Nobles, John Wayne, William Rutledge and in front, Constance Nobles during filming of “The Horse Soldiers” in Natchitoches in 1959. Original photos by Bob Dial/Shreveport Times

This incident is noteworthy because when John Ford, John Wayne, William Holden and Constance Towers first came down to the Natchitoches area they stayed a good number of days during the filming of the movie in this small Clarence motel. A quick sidebar is, I have often wondered what random passers-by thought as they drove through Clarence on Highway 71 and happened to see John Wayne walking across the highway on his way to the restaurant or returning to the motel? Can you imagine the number of different reactions that occurred inside those cars?

A little later, after Jones checked into his room, he went back across the street to the restaurant for a cup of coffee. When the waitress came over to wait on him again, he had a question he wanted to ask her. This is the initial point where my family becomes involved, via an indirect way, in the making of this movie. The waitress was my mother’s sister, Lena. Another waitress who worked at the restaurant was my 18-year-old older sister, Lillian Nobles. Jones proceeded to ask Lena if she knew of anyone in the area who knew about horses. With no hesitation, Lena responded that her brother-in-law had horses, trained horses and knew a lot of people who had horses.

Her brother-in-law was none other than my father, Alex Nobles Sr.

Read the full story in the Thursday, July 2 print edition or click below for the e-edition: