Unsung Cinema: Buffalo Soldiers (2001)

Some movies, as they say, are right up your alley, and Gregor Jordan’s Buffalo Soldiers is an example of a film that exudes a mood that I identify with. Notably, in this case, a somewhat cynical outlook on life in general. Buffalo Soldiers is different from many Army movies because it does not endorse the Army. Our main character, Specialist (SPC) Ray Elwood, is our guide to this world and certainly has a jaded view of things. The United States Army is hardly portrayed in any kind of positive light here, and you know what? I’m ok with that. There’s a freeing nature to the black comedy in it. Right away, the movie starts on a dark note as a pickup game of football in the barracks turns into someone getting killed diving for a pass. These men have all this aggression stored up and no war to fight. “They know war is hell,” Elwood says, “but peace? Peace is fucking boring.” Right away, Buffalo Soldiers sets out to evoke its mood during the opening credits.

Think of Buffalo Soldiers as a sharper, more cynical version of Stripes, which ultimately had a pro-war pro-American message despite being a lot of fun. Buffalo Soldiers makes no bones about it; this is an honest portrayal of downtime at the end of the Cold War in 1989 West Germany, the film’s setting. Many of these men stationed at the outpost were criminals who were given a choice of jail or service, such as our main character. Ray Elwood has all the charming appearance of an innocent, but in reality, he is business savvy and engages in many criminal activities like cooking heroin and black marketing it. He drives a lavish Mercedes and lives a quietly loud life. Elwood is in a uniquely powerful position on the base, and he effectively wields that power. Ed Harris plays a relatively dense but loveable base commander named Berman. While Elwood indeed confounds Berman at times, he, for the most part, can keep him under his sly control. The scenes of Elwood manipulating Berman, not to mention sleeping with his wife, is one of the film’s darker pleasures. However, Elwood’s world is turned upside down with the arrival of Scott Glenn’s First Sergeant (1SG) Robert E. Lee, a man who sees right through Elwood’s bullshit. The tension is ratcheted up even more whenever Glenn is on screen. Phoenix is more than up to the match. We’ve seen these kinds of relationships in army movies, but never so fresh and devilishly cynical as we do here. Lives are at stake, for sure.

As I mentioned above, the film is like a darker version of Stripes. However, other films it’s reminiscent of (though maybe even darker than others) are The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, MASH, and Catch-22. All stories of soldiers who are off to war, but they’re up to mischief as well. Here though, Gregor Jordan, working off of Robert O’Connor’s book of the same name, stretches that to the max. I admired the film for that, and I can understand why it was delayed almost two years after premiering on September 9, 2001. September 11, 2001, events forever altered this film’s release and immediate impact. Suddenly nobody wanted to see a film about American soldiers who inject heroin and crash tanks. It’s a terrifying, funny scene and the film’s centerpiece sequence. It changes everything for Elwood as well. After all, he is the leading procurer of heroin on the base.

For as dark as the film is, though, there’s a lot of truth in what goes on in Buffalo Soldiers. A significant point of the film is that perhaps there’s nothing scarier than soldiers trained to kill with time on their hands. It has also been explored in other films, like Three Kings (1999) and Jarhead (2005). The idea of a soldier going off to war, but there’s no war to go to. I don’t think the film is anti-military or anti-American, per se. It just shows the seedier aspects of army life overseas. In that way, the satire is brave. You’ll know whether the film will work for you or not right away. It’s not a film that’s out to court the favorable opinion of everyone. It’s designed to shock, and it does.

What helps the film immensely is the fantastic performances of the cast—led by a young Joaquin Phoenix in a slyly devilish performance that’s both charming and a little sinister. Scott Glenn is quietly sinister and terrifying in equal measure as the main villain of the piece. He is our anti-hero, though, and we’re meant to be won over by him through his courtship of Anna Paquin’s Robyn Lee, who happens to be the daughter of Glenn’s Robert E. Lee. Now that sounds almost like a sitcom setup, but there’s some surprising depth to the characters in Buffalo Soldiers. It’s not just a bunch of dark shit happening like a fucked up Sgt. Bilko but there are unexpected nuances to the characters, including Paquin’s Robyn and the relationship with her father. The relationship between Phoenix and Paquin perhaps felt slightly sleazy initially, but I bought it. Maybe the best performance is by Ed Harris, who plays against type as a dull-witted but lovable Colonel at the base who is easily manipulated. Harris was initially sought for the Scott Glenn role but wanted the challenge of playing the Colonel, and I respect him for that because he’s excellent. Also, Rachel McGovern gives a fantastic performance layered beyond stereotype.

The romance in the film does dampen the cynical nature up to that point, but it’s genuinely entertaining to see Elwood and Lee face off against each other. Through the romance and that battle, Elwood does grow as a human being, or does he? The film ends on a cyclical note of Elwood manipulating another dull-witted colonel at a base in Hawaii. Have the dark events that transpired before had an impact on Elwood? Well, he’s still with Robyn, so that’s a start. I also think Elwood has just gotten a little better at hiding his con games. Buffalo Soldiers is more than a film. It’s a dark, witty, cynical vibe. Give it a shot, though, because it’s tremendously funny and brave.

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