Sidewinder’s View: “Buffalo Soldiers” (2001)

I recently revisited the 2001 film Buffalo Soldiers, having picked it up on used DVD two summers ago at our local video store’s going-out-of-business sale. I’d seen the film once before, when it was initially released on home video in 2004. Back then, I found it kind of amusing and worthwhile. Not great, but noteworthy.

I thought higher of the film 13 years ago.

The main character’s a heroin-peddling black marketeer GI (Joaquin Phoenix) stationed in Germany in 1989 during the fall of the Berlin Wall. He and his crew of crooked GIs set about to pulling off a massive heroin cook and illegal arms sale in order to score a large payday, all under the nose of their CO (Ed Harris) and a newly-arrived, gung-ho First Sergeant (Scott Glenn), who takes an immediate dislike to Phoenix’s character.

BS collage TV kick crop.pngThe setting for the novel is Mannheim, where I was stationed as an MP. The movie’s set in Stuttgart, but was filmed on location in Karlsruhe. My main interest in first watching the film stemmed from the idea of ‘revisiting’, so to speak, the landscape of my 1989-1991 military tour.buffalotank2-1747A lot of folks were (are) aggravated by Buffalo Soldiers‘ cynical portrait of American soldiers, presented in the film as either corrupt or incompetent.

However, as an MP who spent nearly two-and-a-half years in Germany (May 1989 to October 1991) working corrections at the confinement facility in Mannheim…mannheim-final…I wasn’t too shocked by any of the film’s examples of GIs engaged in criminal activity, because I knew that such behavior occurred…

…and still does, and always will, because GIs are human beings and human beings are, by our very nature, flawed.

At the time I was serving in Germany, I often wondered why there were never any movies made about GIs who had committed and been convicted of the sorts of active-duty felonies I was, at that time, just learning about.

Why no movie, I thought, about the GI convicted of going on a 5-minute, non-fatal but horrific slashing rampage with a strait-razor in a red-light district where he was stationed in Greece, for which he was sentenced to twenty years in a Greek prison?

Where was the movie about the pint-sized GI who robbed numerous jewelry stores on the German economy by hiding himself in their suspended ceilings during business hours and emerging after hours to go on his illegal shopping sprees, undeterred by alarms or employees?

How about a true-crime military courtroom drama based on the case of three female GIs and their dimwitted male counterpart convicted and sent to prison for abducting, torturing and repeatedly raping a newly-arrived female GI for two days in the same barracks room the victim shared with one of her abductors?

Where was the motion picture about the seeming ‘epidemic’ in Germany, at that time, of fatal beatings perpetrated by male Army and Air Force NCOs on their own small children?

It wasn’t really an epidemic, but it sure felt that way at the time, when there were three or four of these scumbag kid-killers brought into our facility during the last year or so I worked there. Man, what trash.

All of those mentioned above were real criminal defendants/convicts, active-duty GIs, male and female, who graced the halls and cell blocks of the confinement facility during the time I was stationed there.

Whenever I hear folks insisting that the Army ‘covers up’ felonies committed by its troops, all I have to say to that is, Not across the board, they don’t. Not as a matter of policy, nor of general practice. Not in my experience.

When I was stationed at Fort Hood in ’92 as an MP, another soldier in my unit was charged with receiving stolen property, originally swiped from a PX warehouse by several other MPs (from a different unit) while they were on night patrol. Most of these soldiers received prison time for their crimes.

A buddy of mine from Germany told me about his later run-in at Fort Bliss with a group of crooked MPs who were making big money dealing narcotics in their off-time.

New to the unit, my buddy started off just partying with one of these guys, only to learn a short time later how they all managed to afford such nice cars, expensive stereos and TV, flashy clothes, etc., all on enlisted man’s pay.

After turning down their offer to join the crew, my buddy told me their ringleader flashed a handgun he kept by the driver’s seat in his expensive sports car and warned my buddy to keep his mouth shut about what the crew was up to or else.

Characters like those showcased in Buffalo Soldiers did, and do, exist. To deny that is to deny human nature. In any large group of otherwise upstanding individuals, you’re almost always guaranteed to find a small percentage of misfits.

Even back then, however, I realized that these fuck-ups were but a tiny sliver of a sliver of the entire Army/Air Force contingent serving on active duty, and by no means representative of the whole.

As a younger, more naive individual, who appreciated the essence of a good story over the much bigger picture involved, I often thought it was unfortunate that more civilians didn’t realize these kinds of soldiers existed in the modern military.

These are interesting stories, I thought. Each one could possibly make a really interesting movie.

The older I got, though, and the more I thought about this particular sub-basement-category of soldier– the socio/psychopath, the dimwitted malcontent, the felonious fuck-up, etc.– the more I realized what should have been obvious to me all along.

Movies are seldom made about creepy, criminally-inclined GIs.

Why?

Because, just like the real misfits they’re based on, they’re not something the average person really wants to see. Or even know about. 

If you’re a proud American who supports the troops, then grim, negative movies about soldiers aren’t going to change your mind about any of that. Such movies will just piss you off and, hey, life’s too short.

On the other hand, if you’re a troop-bashing American who’s not proud of your country, why waste time watching a movie just to reinforce your negative assumptions?  Most folks, even Lefties, watch movies to be entertained, because, hey, life’s too short.

True Crime dramas with military settings would have an incredibly hard time, upon release, making any of their money back.

Any movie that features, as its lead character, a sociopathic creep who’d screw anybody over in pursuit of self-enrichment (much like the lead character in Buffalo Soldiers), without any other characters in the story that general audiences would care to relate to, well…that movie’s going to be an even tougher sell.

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Hey, even Tony Montana had a soft spot for women and kids.

As for my revisit to Buffalo Soldiers, I no longer found its story, nor its corrupt and incompetent characters, very interesting at all. They’re all losers, suckers and/or degenerates. I’ve always found it impossible to root for characters like that. If I don’t give a damn what happens to them, how can I maintain my interest in what they do (i.e. the plot)?

Another big issue I had with the movie is that I found the main character to be wildly selfish, petty, a bit cowardly, and not admirable in any way shape or form.

Don’t get me wrong, though. The movie’s technically well-made, clever, colorful and frequently entertaining. Which doesn’t change the fact that, at its core, it represents a very bitter, some would say venomous, view of the U.S. military.

At one point, a tank crew, zoned out on heroin and separated from the rest of their unit, recklessly plow their M 1 A1 Abrams (actually a 1986 Krauss-Maffei Leopard 1 A5 dressed up to resemble an Abrams) through a small town, squashing cars, smashing through vendor stands, terrorizing the locals, ultimately exploding a gas station and killing several bystanders, including some GIs transporting weapons in supply trucks.bs-tank-destruction-cropfinalThough serving as a catalyst for the plot, this scene of wanton disregard and destruction is played for laughs. No consequences for the manslaughtering, heroin-junkie tankers are ever depicted or mentioned.

It seemed as if, through this omission, the filmmakers wanted us to believe that not only did this sort of lethal misadventure actually happen back then, but that Army brass had to have covered the whole thing up. Because of course they would. Typical, right?

As I said, I worked in the Army’s jail during my stint in Germany. An incident like this would not have been covered up. When GIs murdered German civilians, they were arrested, tried and convicted. Commanding Officers were by no means hesitant to have soldiers accused of raping local women locked up to stand trial. A GI caught drunk-driving on the German economy? Same thing. Because if the Army didn’t claim jurisdiction in such cases, the German authorities would.

An incident on the scale of Buffalo Soldiers‘ drug-fueled tank rampage? No way that would have gone without notice or legal consequence.

No way. buffalo01So is Buffalo Soldiers, as its detractors claim, “anti-military”?

Of course it is.

More specifically, it’s anti-soldier.

Some reviewers (apologists) have insisted that the movie’s not anti-military, but rather just an ordinary, run of the mill crime drama about drug dealers and gun-toting thugs…

…which just happens to take place in a military setting…

…featuring GIs cooking heroin, selling black market weapons to local gangsters, fragging fellow soldiers, betraying their commanding officers, dabbling in crime out of boredom because they don’t have a war to fight, unsure whether they’re stationed in West or East Germany, or what the difference between the two countries even is

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Not anti-military. Right.

If Buffalo Soldiers were merely a routine crime drama about drug dealers and thugs, why go to the trouble of setting it on an Army base in 1989 Germany? Why not set the story in modern (2001) day, in a non-specific urban setting. with civilian crooks instead of soldiers?

Uniforms, weapons, armored vehicles, pyrotechnics, etc. The effort, the expense, that had to have gone into rounding up all those particular items for the production…we’re supposed to believe the filmmakers’ only concern was to provide an otherwise superficial military setting for a standard crime drama?

I don’t buy that at all.

Plot melodrama aside, Buffalo Soldiers, like the novel it was based on, was intended to make a statement.buffalo-soldiers-panel2The GIs in Buffalo Soldiers fall into two categories: 1) Corrupt, venal, and/or bloodthirsty Machiavellians, and 2) well-intentioned, but clueless, boobs and pawns.

Of the three people I’ve watched Buffalo Soldiers with, each found the film watchable and mildly amusing, but merely ‘alright’. All three noticed an anti-military bias in the material itself. While I would assume that it’s easier to enjoy Buffalo Soldiers if you were never in the military, only one of these three fellow viewers was a veteran. The other two tend to lean liberal on certain issues.Buffalo Soldiers car destruction.pngToo many of the events in the film…the minutiae of day-to-day Army life…the way characters interacted, the dialogue they spoke…seemed based not on first-hand experience, but speculation inspired mostly by hearsay and spun through a filter of inherited anti-military assumptions.sep-08-2001-london-england-uk-scene-from-the-comic-war-drama-buffalo-f6gxn4

The photo above, for example, is taken from a scene early in the movie. Soldiers are shown marching across an American flag that’s been painted on the concrete of a parade ground, soiling it with their muddy bootprints.

On the DVD audio commentary, the director, Gregor Jordan states:

“A friend of mine was stationed on an Army base in West Germany at the time the film’s set and he was telling me how, in the middle of the parade ground, there was a huge stars-and-stripes flag and it could be seen from the air.

I thought this was very bizarre, because having a flag in the middle of the parade ground, surely that meant that the soldiers would be marching on it at some point, and vehicles would be driving over it, and things like that.

So I got the idea for this scene, based on that information that this friend told me about, this big flag. Of course, it kind of becomes a sort of a bleak metaphor for what the film’s about, these guys actually walking all over the flag.”

Having visited my share of military installations during my time traveling in both Germany and the continental United States, I never observed such a thing. The fellow vets I’ve spoken with about this claim have no memory of ever seeing such a thing, either.

I’ve searched online for photos of old military bases in Germany and perused a lot of aerial photos of such locations, both older and newer. I’ve not yet found any evidence of American flags, or unit insignia, for that matter, painted on parade grounds.

Think about it. Would a base commander ever authorize or allow such a thing, to have an American flag painted on a concrete surface that soldiers could casually stroll over top of daily? That military vehicles could leak fluids on?

Based on my own military experience, I would have to say no. Absolutely not. This sort of thing would never fly.

I’m convinced that Jordan’s pal is either victim of an impaired memory…or he’s lying.BS flag stomp 01 cropFinal.pngBecause to accept such a ridiculous premise, one would have to assume that a base commander answers to no one…

…or that VIPs could never possibly visit the post and raise holy hell about soldiers trampling on, and vehicles rolling over top of, an image of the American flag as if it weren’t even there. BS flag stomp 02 cropFinal.pngThis bit of Provocative Imagery™, along with quite a few other creative flourishes throughout Buffalo Soldiers, was quite obviously dreamt up by somebody with zero military experience, operating from hearsay and artistic license.

And, as a veteran watching this scene, it took me right out of the movie.

The filmmakers have defended the film as satire, but then, when challenged, insisted that everything depicted in the story really happened the way they showed it.

Well, then, I thought, it’s not really satire, is it?

Don’t get me wrong. The movie’s technically well-made, clever, colorful and frequently entertaining. Which doesn’t change the fact that, at its core, it represents a very bitter, some would say venomous, view of the U.S. military.

Thinking back on Buffalo Soldiers, I had to wonder, what’s the purpose of a movie like this?

A movie in which damn near every American soldier in the story is “walking all over the flag”?

Where every GI is depicted as either self-serving, sadistic or weak.

A movie narrated by a scheming hustler who, at the outset, informs us:

Vietnam was the thorn in everybody’s side. They stopped the draft and asked for volunteers. Except nobody volunteered. I mean, who wants to play for a losing team?

So where to go to find the new patriots? Answer? Prison. Take convicted felons and give ’em a choice: Serve time or serve your country. Criminals and high school dropouts (*), trained to kill.

I know something now: Prison would’ve been a hell of a lot safer.

What’s the point of a film like this?

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Certainly not to make Americans, or anyone else, for that matter, feel good about the U.S. military, particularly those serving overseas during the Cold War (hey, that was me!).

The film’s certainly not pro-military. And its portrait of American GIs isn’t exactly what I’d call nuanced or ambiguous. Morally, these characters are pretty awful.

So if it’s not pro-soldier…and it can’t be seen as a neutral, objective depiction of Army troops at the close of the Cold War…then what would you call it?

A slick smear job on the American GI.

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Mildly diverting and occasionally entertaining…but a smear job, just the same. That’s what I’d call it, anyway, its director’s “guys-walking-on-the-flag” perspective be damned.

All sides engage in propaganda.

The only real question is which side’s efforts you’re most comfortable with.

 

One thing I forgot to mention about Buffalo Soldiers: The cast is outstanding.

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(*) I can’t speak for the first half of the 1980s, but when I enlisted in 1988, the Army wasn’t accepting high school dropouts or anyone with criminal records. A buddy of mine with an abnormally high IQ, but two juvenile misdemeanors to his name, and no diploma, was turned away by recruiters without hesitation in 1986.

A few years later, my mother tried to interest recruiters in my sister, who also had juvenile misdemeanor convictions. The Army and Air Force recruiters all declined to consider my sister for military service. My mom, informed as she was by her experiences during the Vietnam era, when judges did offer the “serve time or serve your country” option, was mystified by the recruiters’ rejection of my sister.

The NCO who recruited me explained the situation as such: Because of the high volume of people seeking to enlist, the military, by the mid-1980s, could afford to be choosy. The Vietnam era was definitely over.

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