Revisiting the film ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’ which is ‘Catch-22’ as written by Generation X
by MATTHEW GAULT
Soldiers in formation march across an American flag embedded in the tarmac. A building housing the less-than-fine soldiers of the 37th Supply Squadron lingers in the background. In the window, two soldiers wrestle back and forth while they argue about the rules.
Spc. Ray Elwood smokes a joint and watches. Behind him, another soldier shoots heroin into his dick. “Life for me is about distractions,” Elwood tells us.
The junkie finishes his fix and joins the wrestlers. They’ve decided to play football. It’s 1989 and this is Stuttgart, West Germany. Elwood and his fellow soldiers are a bunch of military losers tending to America’s duties at the tail end of the Cold War.
They’re not patriotic. They’re bored.
“Soldiers with nothing but time to kill. They know that war is Hell. But peace? Peace is fucking boring,” Elwood says. The football game goes awry. The junkie falls into a table, cracks his head on the edge and dies.
Distracted by the game, the soldiers don’t notice the corpse until Elwood points it out. They take his body to the roof of the barracks and push him off to make it look like an accident. “Parsons … was a casualty of war,” Elwood explains. “The only difference was that this was the Cold War and he was a fucked up junkie.”
This is the opening of Buffalo Soldiers, the darkest military comedy I’ve seen since Zero Motivation.
Gregor Jordan directed Buffalo Soldiers, which is based on a 1993 novel by Robert O’Connor. The film feels like a product of a Generation X mind, and that’s a good thing. It shares the deeply cynical and stylistic vibe of movies such as Trainspotting and Reservoir Dogs. It’s Sgt. Bilko strung out on heroin.
It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before, and a true classic. Yet most people haven’t heard of it because the film had the bad luck of coming out at the exact wrong time.
Buffalo Soldiers premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2001. The producers sold the movie’s distribution rights to Miramax on the night of Sept. 10.
“It was clear the next day that the attacks would have a negative impact on the marketability of the film,” director Jordan told Movie City News back in 2003. “I was confident, though, that there would come a time when the movie could be seen as being topical, again.”
After a decade and a half of wars in the Middle East, the corruption of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and frequent reports of the poor behavior of American military personnel abroad, I’d say Buffalo Soldiers’ time has come.
Buffalo Soldiers follows Spc. Ray Elwood — played with laconic charm by Joaquin Phoenix — as he navigates the unpleasant world of Army life in peacetime West Germany. Elwood didn’t want to join. He stole a car, got caught and took a military deferment to avoid jail. Now he spends time watching T.V. and cooking heroin for a Turkish gangster.
Elwood is affable, cool and diplomatic. He navigates the various tribes of his base with ease and kisses just the right amount of the base commander’s ass. If he puts his mind to it, Elwood could make an excellent career officer.
But Elwood’s cushy life goes to shit when a new first sergeant arrives on base. First Sgt. Robert E. Lee hates Elwood from the moment they meet and sets out to destroy his life. At the same time, Elwood and his buddies come across a score of missing military equipment they aim to trade for heroin — so much heroin they’ll be able to retire if they sell it.
The bulk of the movie follows Elwood as he avoids Lee’s rage, navigates the heroin deal and fends off other forces on the base that want a piece of his action. It’s thrilling, fucked up and funny. It’s a military film about personal conflicts, set inside the insular world of an Army base.
Miramax sat on Buffalo Soldiers for two years after 9/11, waiting for the wars to end or for American opinion to shift. At some point, the suits realized they couldn’t hold the film forever and released it into the wild in the summer of 2003.
Critics loved the film when they saw it on Sept. 8, 2001. In 2003, they still liked it but wrote about it as if they felt guilty for enjoying themselves.
“Possibly much more damaging in terms of the film’s commercial prospects,” Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety, “is the slim chance, any time in the foreseeable future, that the American public will feel like supporting an entertainment that hinges on an absurdist view of an entirely disunified and incompetent military. All of a sudden, this looks like the wrong film at the wrong time.”
The Drudge Report ran a headline accusing Disney — then Miramax’s parent company — of taking cheap shots at the American military. The movie made $354,000 against a budget of $15 million. The studio buried the film and people forgot it.
It’s on Netflix now and everyone should watch it. It’s important. The crude humor and messed-up plot are selling points, but the film’s real draw is how it pulls back the curtains on soldiers and shores up the civilian-military divide.
One percent of the American population fights 100 percent of its wars. We lionize the troops. We pay them lip service, thank them for their service, call them heroes and then abandon them in suburbs and overwhelmed V.A. clinics.
Some soldiers are heroes and some are assholes. All are people. That’s the joy of Buffalo Soldiers. No one is a hero, even they seem that way at first. Most are people trying to get by — just like us. “There’s basically two kinds of guys in the Army: the motherfuckers and the motherfucked,” Elwood explains.
Buffalo Soldiers humanizes soldiers without becoming maudlin. That’s rare. It’s about what happens when a society trains men to be killers then unleashes them in a peaceful community to bide their time. War is a human constant — it’s ingrained in our psyche. The military succeeds, in part, when it nurtures that destructive force in the human heart.
But when a soldier has no war to fight, he’ll start one. Usually with the guy standing next to him and more often with himself. That’s what Buffalo Soldiers is about — soldiers fighting among themselves in the closed-off world of an American military base while the world changes around them.
Also, three guys skagged out of their minds on heroin rampage through Germany in a tank.