"A staggeringly powerful, magnificent film. Must be numbered among the most significant, brutal, liberating and honest American films ever made. It is a movie of great art and courage." -The New York Times
"Horse feathers!!!" -Cine-Miscreant
I finally got around to seeing Ralph Nelson's infamous SOLDIER BLUE, one of many Viet Nam-era flicks taking place in disparate genres that were thinly-veiled protests against the war, and I have to say that on all fronts — political allegory, western saga, romantic comedy — it's pretty much full of shit.
When Sam Peckinpah's superlative THE WILD BUNCH (1969) opened the door to outrageous displays of graphic cinematic ultra-violence, it did so with a talented (if whisky-marinated) hand guiding the camera and possessed a compelling story with characters who had actual depth, but in no time flat there were scores of imitators that fell far from the benchmark set by Peckinpah's epic, and SOLDIER BLUE definitely falls into that category.
SOLDIER BLEW, er, BLUE tells the story of foul-mouthed New Yorker Cresta Lee (Candice Bergen) a blonde proto-hippie chick who's been "rescued" from two years of "captivity" among the Cheyenne and is now being sent to a fort where she'll be reunited with the fiancée she only wants to marry for his money. Also on board the wagon she’s traveling in is a shipment of government gold, cash the Cheyenne need to buy guns with, so in short order the soldiers are wiped out and Cresta flees to the hills, accompanied by Honus Gant (Peter Strauss), the lone surviving cavalryman. Calling Gant by the snarky nickname “Soldier Blue,” Cresta demonstrates that her years among the “savages” was time well spent, outstripping Gant in survival skills, common sense and sheer balls, and over their journey toward the fort they must persevere against the elements, a band of hostile Kiowa, an unscrupulous trader — played by Donald Pleasance, here giving one of his most ridiculous performances — and, in the tradition of many previous western-set romantic comedies, each other.
Gant’s basically a decent sort, but his jingoism and naiveté constantly clash with Cresta’s views on the Indians and their treatment by the military; when Cresta attempts to enlighten Gant about massacres in which women and children are raped and tortured, Gant refuses to hear it and labels her a liar. He also considers her a traitor for her views and is shocked to discover that the only reason Cresta left the Cheyenne wasn't that she was unhappy or being mistreated, but because they just did things too differently for her to ever feel at home as one of them. Oh, and she was also married to the leader of the band that killed soldiers escorting the wagon, meaning that her sacred Whiteness has been tainted by intimacy with an Injun.
During the course of their misadventures the two opposites are inevitably — and predictably — attracted to each other and eventually end up getting it on — while Gant has a freshly-treated bullet wound that went clean through his leg, no less — in what was surely the only conveniently located cave for at least a twelve mile radius that wasn’t filled with rattlesnakes, mountain lions, or who knows what, plus to say nothing of the Cheyenne, who could have done something really spiffy with such a primo apartment (there I go, thinking in NYC real estate terms again).
Realizing that their love could never flourish outside of the cave, Cresta leaves Gant and makes it to the fort by herself only to discover that the dickhead in charge won’t spare a couple of men so they can rescue Gant; the regiment needs all available personnel to launch an attack on the nearby Cheyenne village and once Cresta gets wind of that she slips past her obnoxiously horny hubby-to-be and makes a beeline straight to the Cheyenne to warn them of what’s coming. The tribe’s leader for some reason has faith in the word of the Army — after all, they gave him a medal and promised no hostilities — and against the judgment of his advisers neither flees nor takes the fight to the cavalry.
What happens next is what gained the film its infamy; it turns out that all the wacky misadventures and squabbling were all just a lead-in to a hideous reenactment of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, an orgy of rape, torture and general sadistic evil perpetrated in the name of “keeping the country clean,” and forty years after its release this sequence still disturbs and nauseates for its sheer cruelty. Children are trampled beneath the hooves of charging horses or impaled on bayonets, unarmed people are beheaded — a nice effect, I have to admit — women are stripped and pawed by gangs of slavering brutes, then raped and mutilated — in one truly sickening instance a naked native woman puts up too much of a fight, so her rapist instead decides to cut off her breasts, which we thankfully only see the start of before the camera moves on to chronicle some other hideous act — and scores of innocent people are shot and dismembered, their component parts impaled on pikes and waved about in victorious celebration or kept as the most ghoulish of souvenirs. No bullshit, this scene would instantly garner an NC-17 rating if released today, to say nothing of possibly spurring Native American interest groups to riot in the streets over the incredibly exploitative manner in which the atrocities are depicted.
Gant manages to hobble to the action and witness for himself the horrors described by Cresta, and when he attempts to stop the inhumane mayhem he’s declared insane, a coward, and a traitor. When the smoke finally clears and the plains are literally strewn with bodies and severed limbs, Gant is led away in chains and Cresta, in full Cheyenne garb, joins the pitiful remnants of the village and begins a long march to either incarceration or a miserable existence on some reservation.
I’m all in favor of westerns that don’t shy away from honest portrayals of how the west was won (or stolen if truth be told), but this film has no idea of what kind of movie it wants to be. One minute it’s a heavy-handed pseudo-hippy lecture about how the treatment of the natives was totally fucked up (no shit, Sherlock), then it’s a light-hearted battle of the sexes farce wherein Cresta proves herself five times the man Gant is and manages to look hot in her tasty red calico poncho (with no undies), but that all goes out the window when Donald Pleasance shows up with an unintentionally (?) hilarious pair of buck-toothed dentures and our heroes must figure out how to escape from his murderous clutches in a sub-plot that goes nowhere, all of which culminates in the aforementioned apocalyptic climax. Any one of those tacks would have been okay for a coherent film, but the end result here is a slapdash mess that milked the horrors of its final ten minutes for all they were worth in the film’s promotion and poster imagery. Sadly, the only thing that works in the film is the violence, an unflinching display that tries to out-Peckinpah Peckinpah — which it doesn’t — and even rips off his famous slo-mo squib compositions to much diminished effect. Western auteurism as grindhouse exploitation movie, if you will.
But by trying to be all things to all audiences, SOLDIER BLUE ends up as an incoherent, preachy Mulligan stew of presumably well-intentioned political correctness, but if they were going to tell the story of the Sand Creek Massacre, wouldn’t it have been a good idea to have some Injun characters who were more than just walk-ons with Murphy Brown acting as their mouthpiece? We get to know absolutely nothing of the people who get wiped out solely for what appears to be a crass ploy to lure gorehound moviegoers into seeing “the most savage film in history.” If you, like me, were intrigued by the provocative ads and reviews that shower almost endless praise upon it for its “daring to tell it like it was,” take my word for it and let SOLDIER BLUE slowly fade into cinematic obscurity. A feel-good flick it ain’t and it’ll really kill all the joy in the room when you make it past the first forty-five minutes. The perfect companion piece for a double bill with the even more exploitative and offensive CUT-THROATS 9 (1973), which is a subject for another post and a much better film.
Oh, and did I mention that the characters reference the Battle of Little Bighorn, which did not occur until twelve years after the events of this story? Way to do your research, fuckstick!