Buffalo Soldiers (2001)
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005
Attacks of September 11th 2001 had profound effect on American film industry, because after them many important or popular films could not be seen without, in one way or the other, being compared with real life. But the effect of that fateful day wasn’t limited to the past films. Some of the films that were supposed to be released were put on hold, because the studios were worried about their tone or subject matter being inappropriate for prevailing mindset in America. One of such films was BUFFALO SOLDIERS, 2001 black comedy directed by Greg Jordan. It took few years and a certain change of political climate for this film to be available.
The plot, based on the novel by Richard O’Connor, is set in West Germany at the end of Cold War. With Soviet invasion becoming less likely, American troops guarding the Free World are becoming bored out of their minds and engage in all kinds of misbehaviour, like abusing drugs and crushing cars of hapless West German civilians with their tanks. Specialist Ray Elwood (played by Joaquin Phoenix) decides to spend his time more constructively – he and couple of soldiers set up their own heroin production and arms smuggling racket. All this happens under the eyes of Colonel Wallace Berman (played by Ed Harris), kind-hearted but clueless battalion commander, who is blissfully unaware even of Elwood having an affair with his wife (played by Elizabeth McGovern). Things change when the new, tough Sergeant Robert K. Lee (played by Scott Glen) arrives to base and begins to hamper Elwood’s illegal activities. Elwood tries to retaliate by starting an affair with Lee’s daughter Robyn (played by Anna Paquin) but this only leads to personal conflict escalating to almost surreal proportions.
BUFFALO SOLDIERS had its premiere on September 7th 2001. It isn’t hard to understand why Miramax chose not to distribute the film after the whole social climate in America changed four days later. In a country which went to great pains to describe “men and women of armed forces” as noble and heroic defenders of democracy it was hard to accept the film where those same men and women are portrayed as murderers, drug dealers and other examples of human filth. Thankfully for Miramax, war in Iraq created enough of anti-military sentiment in USA for BUFFALO SOLDIERS to become acceptable for American audience and later enjoy even greater acceptance abroad.
If BUFFALO SOLDIERS is indeed “anti-American” or “anti-military”, it is only in a sense that it shows some unpleasant truths that aren’t limited to the world’s greatest superpower or its current government. The sorry state of US military depicted in the film is even explicitly explained through the protagonist’s opening narration – after Vietnam War and abolition of draft, there was very little chance of military being the reflection of American society in general. In other words, when prosperous industrial nations make their militaries professional, they are bound to be faced with militaries comprised of those people who are marginalised in those societies because of their skin colour, low education, low income, low intelligence, criminal tendencies or all of that. And, as Robert Aldrich implicitly suggested in THE DIRTY DOZEN, certain qualities that make a good soldier would be completely unacceptable for individuals in civilian life. This heretical thesis is explicitly stated in BUFFALO SOLDIER – the more humane and scrupulous character is, the less likely it is that he would make a fine soldier and vice versa.
One of the greatest achievements of BUFFALO SOLDIERS is in the way it delivers such ultimately depressive content in humorous fashion. Even more important is ability of screenwriter Eric Weiss to avoid some of Hollywood clichés, especially those related to the protagonist. Elwood, brilliantly played by Joaquin Phoenix, is anti-hero whose actions might look despicable, but they are only reflections of a society; in other words, Elwood might be corrupt, but he isn’t better or worse than the very system to whom he belongs. What is even more important is his humanity – the film suggests that Elwood might have something of a conscience, but, unlike conventional Hollywood films, he doesn’t get one great epiphany at the end.
Unfortunately, BUFFALO SOLDIERS did succumb to certain Hollywood conventions. The most noticeable is obligatory romantic subplot involving Sergeant Lee’s daughter – although Anna Paquin again shows his great acting ability, the whole romance is too distracting and blunts the satiric edge of the film. Even more annoying is heavy-handed symbolism at the very end of the film. However, even with such flaws, BUFFALO SOLDIERS is a dark, entertaining and thought-provoking film that could be recommended to pacifists and militarists alike.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)