Buffalo Soldiers has had a tough time getting a release date (as I write it has still not been released in the US), with first the events of 9/11 intervening and then the war in Iraq (and in the UK the financial difficulties of Film Four). That delay may prove detrimental because in some ways this is most certainly not a Republican-friendly film, and quite possibly neither will it be understood by the American public today. Even if it’s moral stance had not been a highly negative one of the US Army overseas – less as peacekeepers, more as exploitative money-makers – it would still have found it difficult in a US where public opinion had moved firstly towards isolationism and then towards the view that the US army were global protectionists. But unpalatable though the film may be to some, it has an urgent need to be seen, not least to correct the fallacy that any army is solely in it for wholly virtuous reasons. Its wider motives – that governments are also corruptible – only makes it more difficult to view objectively.
This is not the universal truth of the film. Set in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall Buffalo Soldiers makes you ask yourself what an occupying army does if they don’t deal in drugs, sell weapons and keep the black market functioning. Very little is the answer. If the film doesn’t really describe the innate boredom of peacetime occupation it at least suggests that part of that boredom is offset by exploiting it, often with the unwitting collaboration of senior officers. "War is hell. Peace is fucking boring", as the movie’s tagline says. (In some territories this has been changed to "Steal all you can steal" and "A story so outrageous you couldn't make it up", or "Where there is peace the warlike man attacks himself," a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche.)
Taking its cue from M.A.S.H., the film is partly black comedy (a request for 1000 litres of cleaning fluid is met with the retort that ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ – in fact, it is to be used to manufacture heroin). But the film is also heavy on allusion – the opening sequence of Phoenix (in a subtle performance) falling from the sky to his death, in a recurring dream, is juxtaposed at the end of the film with the reality of him falling from a window and living. The fall of the Berlin Wall itself is put into the context of a wider morality – it also begins the end of wide-scale US presence in Germany and the end of the scam (only for that, at the very end of the film, to ignite again – much closer to home - in Hawaii).
The performances are often excellent. Ed Harris, as a Colonel Blimp type figure, gives a wild turn as an officer trying to impress (with the baggage of an ambitious wife in tow), Scott Glen an unnerving and malevolent Vietnam veteran who takes it upon himself to crush the indiscipline of around him (but things aren’t what they seem) and Anna Paquin as his daughter in a multi-layered performance that suggests both her independence and vulnerability.
Gregor Jordan’s direction is full of nice touches. The suggestion that the soldiers don’t even know where they are (in both a real and a moral sense) is highlighted by the TV coverage of the fall of the Wall (‘where is Berlin?’ is the question asked). But it is also evident that Buffalo Soldiers is about fear – and overcoming it – and about the poverty of reality versus the wealth of dreams. Phoenix’s initial courting of Glenn’s daughter may start out as manipulative but he ends up falling for her – in spite of both her father and her own disfigured torso (an accident caused by her father). It is perhaps the only piece of sentimentality in a film notable for its lack.
David Holmes’ score is the right side of cool – especially for a movie like this - and adds to both the edginess and unsettling momentum of the film. It’s definitely worth catching – if only because it offers a disquieting perspective of what does happen, especially when so much argument and counter-argument infects our true understanding of events. A welcome piece of anarchy!