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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    Review of Buffalo Soldiers movie

    Dan Keeton

    After a seemingly endless run of unbridled militarism in the movies, it's a relief to get a film that moves in the other direction. If Buffalo Soldiers doesn't come across as full bore anti-Rambo, at least it tweaks the genre's nose.

    Army clerk Ray Elwood (Jaoquin Phoenix) runs the base where he's stationed in West Germany pretty much the way he wants. That is, he has a healthy business selling army supplies on the black market while greasing enough palms to make certain life is basically sweet. There's little danger of getting killed in combat anyway, since the U.S.'s long-standing foe is busy self-immolating. It's 1989, and the Berlin Wall is coming down.

    The political drama plays out on TV vignettes as a mostly ignored backdrop to the shady dealings of Elwood and his partners, who pay attention only to their own interests that include the possibility of early retirement through the sale of stolen weaponry. This is entering the big leagues, but there is little danger of savvy or interference from the army brass, represented by the myopic colonel in charge of the base (wonderfully played by Ed Harris). Elwood regularly has the colonel sign for outrageously high quantities of supplies without engendering the slightest suspicion, and he entertains his commander's wife (Elizabeth McGovern) as a side benefit.

    All this changes with the arrival of a new staff sergeant (Scott Glenn), an apparent incorruptible who immediately sizes up the situation and places Elwood at the top of his doo-doo list. In revenge, the shifty file clerk begins dating the sergeant's daughter (Anna Paquin). Meanwhile, things are getting complicated in the arms dealing business and Elwood has his hands full treading between his vengeful superior and shadier elements on the base and in the community.

    All this makes for an interesting and fast-moving plot, laced with occasional forays into dark humour. The screenplay is adequate if not outstanding in this quickly edited effort that at least has the honesty to question the insufferable air of superiority and righteousness infecting most U.S. military flicks. These buffalo soldiers, we're informed by Elwood's narration, consist mainly of high school dropouts and citizens who have run afoul of the law. (The army seemed preferable to prison, though Elwood's entertaining some doubts on that matter.)

    Buffalo Soldiers is an adequately made movie with enough good laughs to place it on the recommended list, and its politics, as such, are healthily irreverent. This includes a scene that blends iconoclasm with the typical Hollywood love of mass destruction, when a tank crew stoned on heroin creates mayhem and death mis-steering the death-dealing machine through town. Indeed, the ingestion of drugs and alcohol comprise the key pursuits of soldiers so bored and intellectually adrift they're not certain or concerned about which Germany they're stationed in.

    In contrast, Glenn's sergeant is iron resolve masking a truly psychotic mission to rid the world of its Elwoods. Having done three tours of Vietnam and having loved every minute of it, the sergeant is the closest thing to the Clint Eastwood types featured in Hollywood's arsenal of militaristic propaganda films. This is a film, then, in which there are no real heroes, only survivors who discover some sense of decency amid the carnage.

     It might be expecting too much that the U.S. film industry, so tied to the jingoism of the White House these days, will produce a truly anti-war film as occasionally emerged in the Vietnam War days. In the meantime, the sardonic view of Buffalo Soldiers will do.

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