Hilarious and Harrowing Times in the Military; Gregor Jordan’s “Buffalo Soldiers”
by Erica Abeel
The official reason cited by Miramax for the delayed release of “Buffalo Soldiers” post-September 11 was “sensitivity to the current world situation”; the film’s frontal assault on America’s peacetime military would not have played well with citizens rallying round the flag and trying to come to terms with the horrific events. Then a May 2003 release had to be scrapped as well, when America inconveniently invaded Iraq. The current debut date of July 25 may prove equally awkward, what with guerilla warfare in Iraq placing our “peacetime” troops in a shooting gallery. Perhaps, given America’s imperial ambitions, the near future offers no good window for “Buffalo,” and Miramax will just have to put the thing out there, as it did with “The Quiet American,” duck the flak — and relish the publicity.
Certainly, “Buffalo” is vulnerable to attack. Its blitzkrieg of military culture can’t be accused of subtlety. And midway through, the plot falls disappointingly, like any actioner, into a macho face-off between antihero and villain. But unlike most actioners, this is a brilliant, brave film with an incendiary message, which works the edge between hilarious and harrowing.
Based on Robert O’Connor‘s novel of the same name, this sophomore effort from Aussie director and co-writer Greg Jordan (“Two Hands“) follows the exploits of a group of American soldiers stationed in Stuttgart, Germany in 1989 during the period of glasnost, only days before the toppling of the Berlin Wall. These are “soldiers with nothing to kill except time,” as the voiceover puts it. Their ringleader is Specialist Ray Elwood, of the 317th Supply Battalion (conveyed with high mischief by Joaquin Phoenix), a convicted felon who has chosen to serve three years in the army, rather than three months in the clink. In the casually horrifying opener that sets the tone, he witnesses the accidental death of a soldier during touch football (an event that barely registers on his teammates.) Cut to a long shot of a body being tossed from a barracks; then Elwood closeted with base commander Berman (Ed Harris), tweaking the language of an obit about the soldier’s “fatal fall.”
A more lethal version of Milo Minderbender from “Catch 22,” Elwood profits from military service by moving gallons of stolen Mop’N’Glo around the black market, and cooking heroin for the thuggish chief of military police. He wheels and deals under the nose of the clueless Berman, who’s preoccupied with buying a vineyard in the Sonoma Valley (unaware that his trusted aide is also shagging his wife). But the status quo is disrupted when new top sergeant, Robert Lee (Scott Glenn), spots Elwood’s black Benz and a grunt’s Rolex, and decides to clean up the base. Allergic to boredom, the charming rogue-ish Elwood decides to hit on the “Top”‘s delectable daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), just to mess with his head. The equally perverse Robyn is turned on by Elwood’s impure motives; he falls for her in earnest — and the stage is set for the final unevenly matched showdown between Elwood and the murderous Top. The coda delivers an acidly funny twist.
So what’s not to offend here? As depicted by “Buffalo,” the peacetime military has spawned a thriving criminal subculture, with its own brand of venture capitalists doing business in a parodic inverted version of civilians. In this playground for psychotics, the average soldier is either a dope fiend or drug lord. Group recreation involves beating to a pulp a naïve young recruit — “When there is peace the warlike man attacks himself,” we’re informed by none other than Nietzsche. And the ferocious Chief of Military Police, played by Sheik Mahmud-Bey, might be a gang leader airlifted to Stuttgart from the ‘hood.
The top brass are either buffoons like Berman (“too nice a guy for the army,” as Elwood remarks) or state sanctioned assassins like Elwood’s nemesis, the Top, an over the top villain to make “From Here to Eternity“‘s Fatso seem like a wuss. (Interestingly, Montgomery Clift‘s dreamy, idealistic Prewitt in the same movie was also named Robert E. Lee.) “He’s done three tours in Nam, he’s killed a lot of people,” Robyn warns Elwood of her dad. Poised to fling Elwood out the window, the Top confides, “I loved Nam, I fucking well loved it. And I did all sorts of shit. If we’d had won, everyone else would have loved it too.”
The film’s humor is several shades beyond dark. In one riotous set piece, two smacked-out troopers drive a tank (depicted as a kind of monstrous phallus) straight into a crowded village square and hit a gas station, exclaiming over the “beautiful” orange and yellow flashing from the monitors as a fireball consumes the environs. The barracks walls offer such uplifting mottos as, “Be all you can be”; and a TV often drones in one corner of the screen, providing a kind of aural curtain of breaking news, while the soldiers pursue their criminal games. In the outrageous climax, Elwood’s final heroin operation, a flaming Armageddon, coincides with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is announced on a background TV. “Where is the Berlin Wall?” one wasted soldier asks. “In Berlin, you dumb fuck,” someone replies.
Oliver Stapleton, longtime DP for Stephen Frears (and who has also worked with Lasse Halstrom), offsets the broad satire and mayhem with elegantly framed shots. An aerial view of troops marching diagonally on a mural of stars and stripes is both a sacrilegious gesture and an image from a Russian constructivist poster. The film is knit with recurring motifs, such as Elwood’s fear of falling. In the pre-credits sequence he plummets from a great height to land, splat, on the opening title; the fall is reprised in a dive he takes off the high board for some canoodling in the pool with Robyn.
Jordan elicits just the right anti-naturalist tone from his superb cast, which includes Elizabeth McGovern as Berman’s smarmy ball-buster wife, and Dean Stockwell cameoing as a general, who reflects over his third martini, “the best fighters in the world are people with nothing to lose.” Gleefully playing against type, Ed Harris is a hoot as the henpecked base commander. But the big revelation is Joaquin Phoenix, his claim of a perfect rapport with director Jordan evident in every shot. In a career-making performance, he indelibly captures a man trapped in a deadly habitat, who survives through consummate hypocrisy, making it a point of honor never to divulge anything of himself. The camera loves his shapely head, dark brows, and sexy gaze, at once compliant and mocking.
Far more corrosive than “M*A*S*H,” this film not only flays the military — it implicitly critiques our culture’s treatment of its “disposable” underclass. The historical Buffalo Soldiers were a regiment founded in 1866, consisting mainly of slaves freed after the Civil War, who were forced by economic necessity to join the army (and who eerily resemble today’s soldiers, disproportionately from minorities and mostly poor, who enlisted to further their education, only to become cannon fodder in Iraq.) “What struck me about the Buffalo Soldier story,” says novelist Robert O Connor, “is that here were people risking everything they had for something they would never benefit from.” Similarly, the film’s current Buffalo Soldiers — ghettoized, oblivious, and cannibalizing each other — have no stake in the history being made only miles away.