Forgotten Favorites: Buffalo Soldiers (2001)

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For this edition of Forgotten Favorites, I’ll be reviewing and discussing Buffalo Soldiers, a film from 2001 directed by Australian filmmaker Gregor Jordan. I’d never seen or even heard of it before today. It was on Showtime On Demand, and while watching, I looked up some fascinating trivia about the film– trivia that could help explain why it was forgotten.

Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9th, 2001, the events of 9/11 just two days later pretty much destroyed any distribution potential in the US. Two years later, during a Q&A following a screening of it at Sundance, a woman verbally attacked the film and accused the filmmakers of being un-American, even going so far as to throw a plastic water bottle– aiming for the screen, but instead hitting an elderly man in the head, because that is more American somehow, isn’t it? From there, the film was only released in the US in a limited run later that year. The first theatrical release of the film was actually in Germany in 2002. Pretty interesting stuff, if you ask me.

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And I guess I could see why someone would come to such an accusation, but I can’t say I agree with hating a film for yielding such potential interpretations. After all, the film feels refreshingly and bitingly honest in its cynicism, and it is well-acted and entertaining. The problem is that people just don’t like to admit to or bear cinematic witness to any possible corruption, purposelessness, drug-addiction, boredom, greed and useless violence that may or may not have really transpired among at least certain American troops at certain times and in certain places. The time and place of this film is a US Army base in West Germany in 1989– just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was this premise that drew me to the film initially, and it was the trivia surrounding it that drew me in, but it was the story and even more so the execution which ended up hooking me for me good.

The plot revolves around Ray Elwood, played by Joaquin Phoenix. He and his fellow soldiers are not merely bored, they’re also fairly unenthusiastic about being soldiers in the first place, and we know as viewers that their training was all for nothing anyway, particularly as the Cold War is coming to a close (before ever heating up). The only thing Elwood seems even remotely driven by is his heroin-cooking and selling, and he and the rest of these men are all involved as buyers, sellers and/or users in a criminal subculture that surely does make these Americans look irresponsible, spoiled and at times foolish. One notable scene is when a tank barrels through a German town, causing all kinds of needless destruction that is both devastating and comic at the same time, all because the men operating the tank were high to the point of stupidity.

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Anyway, when a sort of rivalry– equally rooted in American male hubris and aggression, and militaristic status– begins between the strict, stern and unforgiving Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn) and Elwood, Elwood decides to court Lee’s daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin), out of vengeful spite. But Robyn and Elwood soon fall for each other. And with a massive order of heroin to make, tensions continue to rise from all these various origins until the ironic ending. The film’s conclusion, without giving too much away in terms of content, is so cheery, so devoid of any character’s maturation, growth or change and only confirming a willful stubbornness instead, that the message that comes across to us is alternately skeptical and bleak, accentuated by a Nietzsche quote about there always being a war somewhere.

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Genre and tone are everything when it comes to any kind of war movie, I think. Based on a novel, this film is satirical and turns the American’s involvement in the Cold War’s final moments into a joke. I am, however, in no way against that. In fact, the film was immensely enjoyable and its critique was clear without being obnoxious. Other war movies may be critical of war itself– Jarhead (2005) and The Hurt Locker (2008) might come to mind– but even those are “patriotic” in some sense, again criticizing the act of war more than those fighting it. Buffalo Soldiers took a darkly humorous approach and perhaps that is what led to its demise commercially.

But I think it is all the smarter and better for it, because it isn’t necessarily any less about war itself, especially where the Cold War is concerned– a war that was inherently tense but also understandably slow and uneventful, especially at this juncture for the Americans. The Americans act the way they do here not only because they are Americans (to whatever extent that was actually intended, if at all) but also because they were soldiers in a war they’d never actually get to fight in, everyday losing ambition except for perhaps within their black market dealings. With Sergeant Lee as a nearly sadistic Vietnam veteran though, it’s hard to say whether or not the film is suggesting that seeing actual action would have made these men any “better” after all.

I think the film begs these kinds of questions and I think it’s a shame that it was somewhat dismissed for inciting these kinds of conversations before it could ever fully do so among audiences here. As a film though, it is a hidden gem that deserves rediscovery, especially if you’re unafraid of its rough, sharp edges and feisty, fiery glow.

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2 thoughts on “Forgotten Favorites: Buffalo Soldiers (2001)

  1. One of my all time favourites and usually the first film I go to when asked for a film to recommend, especially as it is sadly such an overlooked film with no real discernable reason other than poor distribution.

    I never saw it is an un American film, as the soliders really could have been from anywhere and the film would have still worked. I personally prefer to go with the idea that if you train a solider for war and then fail to provide one, don’t be surprised if they go and find their own war as seen here with Elwood’s tit for tat campaign against Sergeant Lee and to a lesser extent the rivalry between COL’s Berman and Marshall.

    The book by Robert O’Connor is pretty different in many ways, with Elwood being more of a full blown junkie than the casual habit he has here, while the biggest difference being that Robyn only has one arm in the book. True it doesn’t change anything, but caught me by surprise when I read the book.

    Good review 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment! So glad someone else has seen this! That’s a really interesting point you bring up about failing to provide a war and how these soldiers could have been anyone (from anywhere)– I tend to agree with you there, but from an hyper-patriotic standpoint, people will always find it important that the soldiers were indeed American, they’ll find the point of offense in that if they so choose to, you know? But I definitely wouldn’t have accused the film of being anti-American either, for those kinds of reasons you pointed out. Interesting too that there are differences between book and movie (as there usually are). Also a great case study in why distribution/proper marketing really matter.

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