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Base behavior
An all-American Buffalo Soldiers
BY PETER KEOUGH
Shuffling Buffalo

Two days after his film screened at the Toronto Film Festival, Gregor Jordan was ecstatic. Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, had just picked up Buffalo Soldiers, his savage black comedy about drugs, crime, and mayhem on a US military base. The date was September 10, 2001.

Jordan remembers what he felt the next day as the World Trade Center was burning. "I have this terrible guilt about my own selfishness because I knew that the film was going to be affected. I didnít know how, but I knew that it was going to have an effect. It was pretty clear from that morning that this was not something that was going to go unnoticed, and that the world was going to change in a major way. So I guess I was aware that there would be an effect."

One effect was that audiences would have mixed feelings about a film depicting the average footsoldier as a ruthless mercenary willing to swap stolen weapons for raw opium to be cooked down into heroin and marketed to his fellow troops. When Buffalo Soldiers showed at Sundance last January, a patron expressed her opinion by tossing a bottle that was reported to have bounced off cast member Anna Paquinís head.

"Iíll tell you what really happened," says Jordan. "It was right at the end of the movie. Everyone was applauding, and I was walking up onto the stage, and it was then that she threw the water bottle. It was empty. It didnít go anywhere near Anna Paquin; that was misreported.

"I think the lady was probably nuts, and one thing that I felt was funny was that she waited until the end of the film to express her outrage. She didnít get up halfway through or anything like that, and 20 minutes into the film you get a pretty good idea of what itís about. So I figured, well, she wasnít bored."

Say what you will about Buffalo Soldiers, it hasnít bored people. It makes them angry and scared. Jordan thinks critics are seeing things out of context. "This really was about a time and a place," he says about the filmís 1989 Stuttgart setting. "I think the Armyís a different place now. I donít think organized crime could ever exist in the same way it did. But at that time in the Army, only 40 percent of recruits had high-school diplomas, and then there was a criminal element because misdemeanor offenders could choose the Army over jail. So there were a lot of undesirable types, and if you think about them being armed with the most technologically advanced weapons and sent to the front line in a country that they really know nothing about on the other side of the world with no war and theyíre just sitting around and doing nothing, itís not surprising that theyíre up to no good. It would be more surprising if nothing ever happened."

Beyond those specifics, Jordan insists, the filmís intent is more philosophical than political. "Buffalo Soldiers is about something deeper than pure politics. My inspiration for making a film is the idea that war is something inevitable and that itís a much more natural state than peace. Peace is just a temporary break in hostilities. A lot of people like war and want war. And if there isnít war, theyíll try to create one."

Nonetheless, a lot of American viewers regard this film by an Australian director as an assault on their patriotism and are outraged that itís being released. "I think thatís very ironic since the US is supposed to be fighting military conflicts to protect democracy and to further democracy. They say they want democracy in the Middle East, but if by doing so the right of freedom of speech in the United States becomes a casualty, then thatís a terrifying situation."

Until now, Buffalo Soldiers has been such a casualty. But almost two years after Miramax bought the film and after five cancelled opening dates, itís finally being released. Jordan thinks the timing is right. "There was always a feeling that sooner or later things would go back to a sense of normality and a time would come when people would start getting more introspective about this whole situation and the film could find a place in that environment. I guess now, ironically, it would seem like a good time to release this film because some real questions are being asked about what has gone on and whatís the best way forward. So some people have said now is probably the best time ever for the release of the film. Better even than before September 11 because itís more topical now."

ó PK

Buffalo Soldiers doesnít waste time acknowledging its antecedents in the anti-heroic military genre. In the opening shot, Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) has a recurring nightmare of being dropped from the bomb bay of an airplane, like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. Moments later, the screen fills with a huge blazon of the Stars and Stripes that looks like the backdrop of the "making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country" speech in the opening scene of Patton. Only, the flag is on the ground and shot from above, and a formation of troops marches over its painted face. Before the film is over, M*A*S*H, Catch-22 and Kellyís Heroes are also cited. But a lot has changed since the í60s and í70s, when those movies were made, including how movies are made and for whom. And far from seeming derivative and dated, Soldiers seems downright revolutionary.

It isnít. An adaptation by Australian director Gregor Jordan of the cultish Robert OíConnor novel, itís a brisk, crisply executed, sometimes visually striking black comedy thatís also glib at times and a little smug. But it draws enough on its predecessorsí subversive spirit and measured anarchy to offend and exhilarate.

Another film to throw into the mix of influences is From Here to Eternity, especially in terms of plot and tone ó the tone more the sardonic nihilism of the James Jonesís original than that of the sanitized Hollywood classic. And the acting isnít bad. In his best performance to date, Joaquin Phoenix brings a snide insouciance and a strange innocence to the Burt LancasterĖish role of Elwood, the cynical company clerk of the non-fighting 317th, a supply unit somewhere near the East-West German border. That border is about to dissolve, as this is 1989, but despite Jordanís efforts to jazz up the film with news footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall ("Where is the Berlin Wall?" asks one stoned soldier), the end of the Cold War is largely irrelevant to Buffalo Soldiers. As Elwood puts it in his voiceover introduction, "War is hell. But peace is fucking boring." And that was as true in 2001 (when the film was made, preĖSeptember 11) as it was in 1989.

Diversion comes in the form of drugs, random violence (often racial ó the MPs are glorified gangstas), and criminal entrepreneurship. Elwood, a convicted petty crook who chose serving time over doing time, excels at the art of the deal, if not at the art of war. Itís to Phoenixís credit that he can make his character endearing in a era when Sergeant Bilko would probably be denounced as un-American. Audiences may well wink at Elwoodís charming shamelessness in selling 500 gallons of Mop íní Glo to the black market. Theyíre likely to balk, however, when he starts swapping Stinger missiles for the kilos of Turkish opium that his crew will boil down to heroin and sell to their grateful comrades on the base.

What makes Elwood human and sympathetic, apart from his status as an existential everyman making do in a world of utter amorality and sinister hypocrisy, is his relationships. His CO, Colonel Wallace Berman (Ed Harris), trusts him implicitly and would probably confide in him even if he knew Elwood was screwing his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), à la From Here to Eternity. What with all the hubbub over the film, few are apt to note the hilarious, mordant subtlety of the scenes between Harris and Phoenix, particularly one heartbreaking moment in which Berman recalls shaking President Kennedyís hand.

So much for sentiment. For romance, thereís Robyn Lee (Anna Paquin), daughter of Elwoodís nemesis, Sergeant Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn, joyously evil). Newly assigned to the base, Sergeant Lee is determined to clean up the corruption through methods he employed in special operations during the Vietnam War. Elwood thinks it would be an interesting twist to the game if he screwed around with Leeís daughter. Then he falls in love, and his nightmare about falling proves prophetic.

Yes, the symbolism is a little facile. Also, the references to Nietzsche thud gratuitously, and whenever the narrative gets bogged down, a fortuitous explosion must be contrived to give it a nudge. But far from lacking respect for the military, Buffalo Soldiers pays Americans in uniform the compliment of confronting uncomfortable truths, and it gives audiences a chance to see all that they can see.


Issue Date: August 8 - August 14, 2003
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