Saturday, April 20, 2013

DUELING MOVIES: Buffalo Soldiers (1997) vs. Rough Riders (1997)


                 TNT produced two movies bringing recognition to legendary cavalry regiments of the late Nineteenth Century.  It seemed logical to compare them especially since the two units fought alongside each other in the Spanish-American War.  “Buffalo Soldiers” is a fictional story about the Tenth Cavalry in the West participating in Victorio’s War.  “Rough Riders” tells the tale of the formation of Teddy Roosevelt’s volunteer cavalry regiment through its Charge Up San Juan Hill. 

                “Buffalo Soldiers” appeared on TV in 1997.  It is set in the New Mexico Territory in 1880.  Apache Indian leader Victorio has broken out of the Mescalero Apache Reservation and is ravaging the countryside.  The Buffalo Soldiers are represented by Company H, Tenth Cavalry stationed at Fort Craig.  They are led by Sgt. Wyatt (Danny Glover).  Their nobleness is established in the first scene as they rescue some Indians who are being hanged by Texas Rangers to get them to reveal the location of Victorio.  Theme:  whites racist, blacks mistreated, Indians misunderstood.  When the unit returns to Fort Craig they are confronted with the newly arrived all-white Second Cavalry  with its racist commander and the new post commander Gen. Pike (Tom Bower) who is openly hostile to the black soldier “experiment”. 

Wyatt and a white guy

                Both units are sent out to track Victorio.  The units separate and the Buffalo Soldiers are lured by some decoys into an ambush.  They get spanked, but luckily capture Nana (another renegade leader who was hoping to hook up with Victorio).  However, Wyatt is blamed by Pike for abandoning the Second.  In case you don’t realize what a jerk he is, he murders a captive during the night because his singing is keeping him awake!

                Col. Benjamin Grierson (Bob Gunton) leads another tracking expedition, but is wounded by a sniper and command falls to Wyatt.  Redemption time?  Or corruption time?  Wyatt seems to be going over to the dark side (or the Texas Ranger side) as he threatens to kill an Indian woman warrior to get Nana to talk.  They ride into another ambush so a main character named Christy (Mykelti Williamson) can get killed.

                Wyatt sets up an ambush at a watering hole and Victorio’s band walks right into the trap.  It’s a Mexican standoff with both sides fingering their triggers.  Will the Buffalo Soldiers do their duty as members of the U.S. Army or will they side with the similarly mistreated  Indians?

                Historically speaking, “Buffalo Soldiers” is a farce.  It is fiction if you bother to check, but any casual viewer would get the impression that it is based on actual events.  Very loosely based.  There is no background given as to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.  This is no “Tuskegee Airmen” (an obvious comparison).  We do not find out that the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry were established after the Civil War.  They were stationed in the West and earned their nickname from the Native Americans.  Sadly, their duties were more of the scouting, protecting railroad workers and mail carriers, and building roads variety, instead Indian fighting.

                As far as the movie events are concerned, Victorio broke out of the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona in 1879 and launched Victorio’s War.  They were provoked by disease, lack of supplies, and general mistreatment.  They did attack settlers.  They ambushed a company of the Ninth Cavalry in Las Animas Canyon using the classic decoy tactic.  Later, Grierson led the Tenth in a campaign to track down the Apaches.  His strategy involved staking out watering holes.  This forced Victorio to escape into Mexico where his band was surrounded and wiped out by Mexican soldiers.

TR and his motley crew
                “Rough Riders” was a two part miniseries that appeared on TNT in 1997.  It covers the entire history of the First US Volunteer Cavalry.  It also gives an overview of the Spanish-American War, specifically the Cuban part.  The movie introduces us to numerous real and fictional characters.  It hits the greatest hits of the war:  Hearst telling Remington to provide the pictures and he’ll provide the war, TR sending Dewey to the Philippines, the Spanish use of smokeless powder, Teddy’s multiple glasses, etc.  It concludes with an extended reenactment of the Battle of San Juan Hill.

Gatling guns
                The movie opens with pictures, newspapers, and political cartoons to get us into the war.  Teddy creates the Rough Riders and a motley crew of outlaws, Ivy Leaguers, ranchers, Indians, etc. gather at the encampment.  A famous sheriff named Bucky O’Neill (Sam Elliott) becomes the stereotypical drill sergeant.  There is more than a training montage.  Eventually they entrain to the singing of “Garry Owen” and pass by waving crowds that include forgiving Confederate veterans.  In Tampa, Teddy wins a race to get on ships first by commandeering a train and mooning the infantry as they race by.
the Charge up Kettle Hill

                In Cuba, the unit walks into an ambush in the woods when Gen. Wheeler (Gary Busey) pushes the regiment ahead against orders.  The first main character dies.  An ex-outlaw named Nash (Brad Johnson) runs away and stumbles into a Spanish flank.  The unit has followed him so he ends up the reluctant, wounded hero.  This is supposed to be the Battle of Las Guasimas.  The rest of the film concentrates on the Battle of San Juan Hill.  There is an artillery bombardment.  Nash returns from the hospital to seek cinematic redemption.  Teddy leads the charge up Kettle Hill and kills a couple of Spaniards.  After taking the hill, they move on to San Juan Hill and mingle with the Buffalo Soldiers.  Teddy shoots two more.  Nash is brave.  We win.  The survivors return home.

                As far as historical accuracy, the movie is above average.  The creation of the unit and the roles of Teddy Roosevelt and Leonard Wood are accurate.  The Battle of Las Guasimas is vaguely close.  Wheeler did disobey orders and the Rough Riders walked into an ambush.  However, the Spaniards were firing volleys instead of from in and behind trees.  In the movie, the Americans blunder into the Spanish flank and force them to retreat.  In reality, the Spanish inexplicably withdrew in spite of having the Rough Riders in a bind.  The movie plays down the incompetence common in first battles in American wars.

Pershing and the Tenth
                The Battle of San Juan Hill is problematical.  It starts accurate and ends laughable.  The movie accurately depicts the terrain and the pre-charge bombardment that provoked the charge.  Teddy did start out on his horse “Little Texas”.  The capture of Kettle Hill was close to as depicted.  Teddy did go off toward San Juan Hill with just a few men because of miscommunication.  From this point on, the movie descends into bull shit.  In actuality, the Rough Riders did move on to San Juan Hill but by the time they arrived the fighting was over.  The mingling with the Buffalo Soldiers occurred during the charge up Kettle Hill.  The movie does not have any Buffalo Soldiers doing that.  As far as Teddy’s personal actions, Bill Clinton must have based his push for awarding Teddy the Medal of Honor after he saw this movie.  In his autobiography, Teddy (not known for modesty) claimed he shot a running Spaniard “like a jack rabbit”.  In the movie, I counted him shooting at least four of the enemy.  That's Hollywood for you - take the facts and make them four times more exciting. 

"Don't call me Teddy!"
                The fun part of “Rough Riders” is the intermingling of real historical persons with the fictional.  Surprisingly, the real figures are accurately portrayed.  Bucky O’Neill and Hamilton Fish died basically as depicted.  O’Neill did say the last words that are put in his mouth.  Frederic Remington and Stephen Crane were spectators as shown.  Wheeler was the loose cannon loony as played by his equivalent Gary Busey.  Tom Berenger gets Teddy’s personality down.  Some will be surprised by his zest for warfare and his boyish mentality, but it fits what I have read about him.

                Both the movies are admirable attempts to bring recognition to famous units.  “Buffalo Soldiers” has the additional aim of making a statement about racism both toward African-Americans and Native Americans.  It is done in a heavy-handed way with hissable villains and cringe-worthy preachy dialogue.  The acting is average and thank goodness for Glover anchoring the film.  The rest of the cast includes some scene-chewers (especially Bowers).  The scenery is excellent.  The music is a blend of made-for-TV forgettableness and some period songs.  The action is average as expected for a movie of this type.  The scenarios are ridiculous and the evolution of Wyatt’s character is hard to believe.  The movie ends with you scratching your head about the motivation of the Buffalo Soldiers.

Gary Busey threatens the director
                “Rough Riders” is well-acted, but also has some scene-chewing.  I’m tempted to mention Busey, but he was playing a scene-chewer.  The dialogue is a bit florid, especially from the mouth of Stephen Crane.  There are the expected cliches.  The redemption of Nash, the gruff leadership of O’Neill.  Westerners and easterners learning to become a team.  The music score is a cut above due to it being composed by Elmer Bernstein’s son Peter.  The sound effects are well done during the battle scenes.  There is some welcome old school humor of which “Buffalo Soldiers” is totally bereft.  Neither movie has anything special in the cinematography department.  The action is more intense and realistic than in “Buffalo Soldiers”, but neither is bloody or graphic.  There is quite a bit of hand-to-hand combat that is well staged.  It is a much better history lesson than “Buffalo Soldiers”.

                Which movie is better?  Clearly, “Rough Riders”.   It could not have been much better considering the made-for-TV nature of it.  “Buffalo Soldiers” could have been a lot better.  I’m no big fan of “Tuskegee Airmen”, but it did a better job lauding its unit.

Buffalo Soldiers  =  C-

Rough Riders      =  B+          

P.S.  I have often shown the charge up Kettle Hill from “Rough Riders” to my American History class because it is entertaining, action-packed, and acceptably accurate.  It also offers an excellent example of how Hollywood plays with history.  I have the students count Teddy’s kills and then I tell them the truth.


  1. That was a duelling post I was very interested in. I haven't seen the movies bt was tempted by both. I'm partial to the cast of Rough Riders. I'm very fond of Sam Elliott. Glad to hear it's the better movie.

  2. Elliott dominates his scenes, of course. The acting in RR is good, but most of the cast is pretty obscure.

  3. I was really impressed by Berenger's performance as Teddy Roosevelt, and I felt that he captured perfectly the real man's mix of insanity, bravery and boundless energy. haven't seen Buffalo Soldiers but I am not surprised that Rough Riders is the better movie, I enjoyed it when I saw it a few years ago.

  4. You are certainly right about Berenger. TR was such a multi-faceted character. I have read a lot about him and he was clsoer to the personality, voice, and eccentricities than any other actor has gotten.

    1. Agreed, but check out Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion. He did an excellent TR as well.

  5. I think that Berenger is underappreciated as an actor in general. He was the best part of Hatfields and McCoys, well him and Bad Frank.

  6. I liked Berenger as Longstreet in "Gettysburg". He got that character down well, too. But his best role is Barnes in "Platoon".

  7. Disagree. This was his best role (though Platoon comes in a close second). Is it worth mentioning the director. John Milius is a war history buff and a Teddy Roosevelt buff as well. Directed "The Wind And The Lion", so this could be construed as a sort of prequel.

  8. I agree that Berenger is better here than in "Gettysburg".


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.