Show Me Your War Farce: The Twisted History of Buffalo Soldiers

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Show Me Your War Farce

The Twisted History of Buffalo Soldiers.

The Toronto International Film Festival draws to a close – and the world is in mourning. Midway through the 10-day showcase of worldwide cinema’s gleaming new offerings, a terrorist attack of historic proportions has eclipsed the silver screen’s glamour.

The year is 2001 and life after Tuesday, Sept. 11, won’t ever be the same. For starters, whenever you say “9/11,” people will know exactly which day you’re referring to. It’s the day that put everything in a new light.

Amidst that day’s incalculable fallout, Miramax executives are experiencing a stomach-churning case of buyer’s remorse. On Monday, Sept. 10, they picked up distribution rights for Buffalo Soldiers, a demented dark comedy starring Joaquin Phoenix. The following morning, a seismic shift in the American zeitgeist has rendered Buffalo Soldiers all but unreleasable. The American public is drowning in loss – and riding a tidal wave of patriotic zeal. And you know what? Right now might not be the best time to drop this bomb on them.

What’s this BS?

Buffalo Soldiers, adapted from Robert O’Connor’s acclaimed 1993 novel, catches America’s war machine at an awkward time. It’s 1989 and the decades-long Cold War is cooling down to its last glowing embers. The Berlin Wall is about to come down and, in Stuttgart, uniformed American miscreants find themselves all dressed up with no one to fight.

US Army Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) and his battalion mates put the FU in SNAFU on a daily basis. Elwood’s in charge of ordering the base’s supplies, which positions him well to make a rather indecent living. He buys, sells and trades black market goods: everything from gallons of Mop & Glo to kilos of coke. But two things are about to squeeze Elwood into a corner.

His newly assigned top sergeant – a hardened Vietnam vet (Scott Glenn) with the improbably badass name of Robert E. Lee – takes an immediate disliking to Elwood. He likes him even less when the cocksure con man starts fraternizing with his daughter (Anna Paquin).

Elwood also comes into possession of some stolen armaments. Ever the consummate entrepreneur, he seizes the opportunity to expand his product offerings. But dealing in arms raises his profile among his criminal rivals. Now Elwood is playing for his life.

It’s hard to describe the tone of Buffalo Soldiers. This is the kind of movie in which one of the funniest scenes shows a heroin-addled tank crew plowing through a crowd of civilians and setting a gas station ablaze before finally dishing out some lethal friendly fire. This sounds absolutely horrible. If it were to happen in real life, it could cause an international incident. But as it plays in the movie, it’s hilarious.

Buffalo Soldiers is not an flat-out masterpiece, but thematically it can be lumped in with such morally ambiguous classics as Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange. In all three films, you find yourself rooting for the protagonist despite their reprehensible behavior. Ray Elwood, Travis Bickle and Alex DeLarge are sick SOBs, but they each possess their own unique twisted charm.

Phoenix and Glenn are perfectly matched nemeses. Both actors deliver an understated slow burn. But their eyes are cold as steel and you can bet when the shit finally hits the fan, neither will show any mercy.

A final salute

The late 1990s saw a wave of anti-authoritarian films that delivered laughs peppered with menace. Buffalo Soldiers belongs in the cinematic family that includes another Miramax release, Pulp Fiction. That wave may have crested in 1999, the year that brought us Fight Club, The Boondock Saints and American Beauty. The film is unmistakably a product of its time. The trouble is, it arrived just as those times were radically changing.

It took two years for Miramax to finally turn Buffalo Soldiers loose. Between 9/11 and the film’s eventual July 2003 release, its launch had been postponed five times. Even the 2003 release was plagued by bad timing. Just months before, US forces invaded Iraq as part of the unending War on Terror.

In years past, the US could often point to a decisive event (e.g. the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the fall of Saigon) as a signal of victory or defeat. But terrorism is as old as humanity itself. In committing to crush terrorist organizations and nations that threaten America, the country is essentially committing itself to a state of perpetual warfare.

For that very reason, we might not ever see another popular American military satire like MASH or Dr. Strangelove. There’s a decent chance that as you read this, you know someone who’s served during the War on Terror. When the faces on the firing line belong to people we love and respect, it can be difficult to laugh at their circumstances.

But to laugh at America’s armed forces isn’t necessarily a show of disrespect. The nature of life is that you will always find an element of irony or absurdity in even the most severe situation. And sometimes all you can do is laugh.

There is one moment in Buffalo Soldiers when Elwood, for once, speaks the truth:

‘When there is peace, the warlike man attacks himself.’ That’s Nietzsche, and his point is that there really is no peace. There’s always some war, somewhere, with someone. And there are no winners or losers either. Just those who are still around to fight another day.