Soldier Blue Review
The art of storytelling is as old as communication itself. The ability to express emotion within the confines of a narrative separates the great from the good – a naff story can be as engrossing as the very best if told in the right way. And the ‘right way’ can vary immeasurably from prose to accent to grammar to verse, and, perhaps, most importantly in structure. The ability to interweave truths with fiction, or lead a story down a particular direction only to have it alter dramatically in the final act are tricks that have been used in all forms of storytelling, from books to plays, from verse to film. Such tricks inevitably lead the audience into a false sense of security and when the abrupt change happens they are caught off guard, shocked even, and this makes for a lasting impression. Witness Hitchcock’s masterful telling of Psycho (1960) whose opening third bears no resemblance to the horror that is in store. Look to at Takashi Miike’s Audition (2000) whose quite charming comedy turned into so much horror that it reviled most everyone that saw it upon its opening and had critics climbing over themselves to leave the screening. Both these two films have the common theme that they start out as broad comedies, or have comic overtones and then turn extremely brutal as the film progresses. Tonight’s feature, Soldier Blue, has a very similar aspect, in that it is broadly comedic throughout most of its run time and it is only in the final reel when things turn distinctly unsavoury, something that I’ll go into in more detail later. But for now, let’s examine Ralph Nelson’s provocative retelling of Theodore V. Olsen’s novel Arrow in the Sun, the 1970’s shocker Soldier Blue.
The film starts with a scrolling text telling you about the brutal ending to the film, made all the worse by the fact that it is based on an actual historical event, that of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre in the Colorado Eastern Plains by the Colorado Territory militia under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington. And even though you are pre-warned about this horrific act, nothing can prepare you for the shocking images that are presented. Even Buffy Sainte-Marie’s foreboding ballad, which is full of impending doom, tries in vain to soften the blow, but nothing will. Once the credits have rolled we meet our main protagonists, Private Honus Gantz, played with perfect naivety by Peter Strauss. This was only Strauss’ second film and his inexperience certainly helped build the character of Gantz, the ‘soldier blue’ of the title. He is almost a prude as he admonishes his friend and peer Private Menzies’ (James Hampton) comments about the girl in the wagon they are escorting. A wagon that is also carrying the soldier’s payroll, and thus making it a likely target for robbery, which is exactly what happens – only it’s not bandits, its Cheyenne Indians, who in a swift and brutal attack kill and rob the convoy leaving only two survivors – the aforementioned Gantz, and Cresta Maribel Lee (Candice Bergen) who was on route to be wed after spending two years as a Cheyenne ‘captive’. Bergen imbues the character of Lee as something of a wild character, a woman that burps, spits, swears and is not afraid to show a little flesh – totally alien to westerns of the time and absolutely against type as far as Gantz is concerned, who puts her lewd behaviour down to being lost to the ‘injuns’ for all that time. And it is during this mismatched couple’s journey back to ‘civilisation’ that the misconceptions all start to unravel.
Gantz is aghast at the destruction wrought by the Indians on his comrades, he openly weeps while he recites verses of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, while cynically Lee tells of far worse committed by soldiers on the Indians, again hinting at what is to come. Taking what they can from the wreckage these two unlikely partners head off to find their way, with mismatch language and actions we are firmly in romantic comedy territory, even down to the music by Roy Budd, who would later create such epic scores for Get Carter (1971) and a slew of other Brit actioners from Wild Geese (1971) to Who Dares Wins (1982), which plays (and sends) up the genre perfectly. By this time you have forgotten the opening preamble and are right with Gantz and Lee as they get closer and closer all the while bickering and flirting with each other, knife fighting with other Native Americans notwithstanding.
Things start to turn a little darker when our heroes come across a wandering traveller named Isaac Q. Cumber, played by a nearly unrecognisable, both physically and verbally, Donald Pleasence. In another character that is not quite who he seems, Cumber is actually a gun runner, selling to the Natives earning back the gold stolen in the beginning of the film. Upon realisation of this Lee wishes to let be, Gantz, still with his head in the clouds with regard the treatment dished out by the army, wants to turn him in, and Cumber, well he just wants to make money, so disables them both and ties them up. A ‘comical’ escape sees Gantz covering Lee’s behind as he tries to release their bonds with his teeth but a man of his convictions he still manages to stop Cumber and this costs him dear as in hot pursuit he is wounded in the leg. Effecting their escape by hiding out in a cave, Lee nurses Gantz back to health, and it is in this intimate surroundings that he finally surrenders to his feelings, Lee too, though for other reasons. With all the romance out of the way, the film now gathers pace towards an ending that literally shocked a nation, the massacre of the villagers.
For the past one hundred or so minutes of film Nelson has kept the mood very light. Wide open shots of the desert landscape juxtaposed with the intimate setting of our two protagonists as they clumsily go about their flirtations. Candice Bergen, who would later find huge fame as Murphy Brown, plays Lee to represent the youth of the day. You have to remember when this film was made, America was deep into Vietnam, the country was at war with itself about the atrocities being committed overseas, there was civil rights, women’s liberation, student unrest – the peace and love of the sixties was being crushed by a tide of unrest that culminated in riots up and down the country. And Bergen imbues Lee with the same ‘radical’ outlook – she is non conformist in her attitude towards her sex, being self reliant (watch her take her own path over the hills rather than through the plains to avoid capture), promiscuous (she is quite happy to surrender to Gantz advances, even though she knows their life can only be ‘in that moment’), confident about herself (she constantly vies for ‘leadership’ and is more of a leader than the soldier), but above all she stands up for the underdog, the Natives, against the state – something that the whole country was doing. Whereas Gantz was representing the unspoken minority, those that were still unsure about where the country was heading, or what they were doing – Lee was informing him of how the army was treating the Natives – just as the youths were trying to inform the rest of the world what their Government was doing in Vietnam – simple, if heavy handed, allegory. Nelson even puts in a line spoken by Col. Iverson (of the Militia) after Lee has pleaded the case of the Natives and stormed off cursing, which must have summed up the mood of many of the politicians at the time “When I see young people today behaving like that I just... I can't help wondering what this goddamn country's coming to.”
Then we come to the films climatic ‘battle’, the massacre itself. And it is extremely brutal stuff. Cinematic violence was gaining significant momentum, with Reeves’ Witchfinder General in 1968, and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in 1969, upping the tempo and the gore, nothing would prepare the audiences for the visual atrocities that were about to be unleashed. The cavalry had hitherto been the good guys, coming to the rescue at the last minute to save the day with bugles blearing and the flash of steel and gun fire. But we know something is not right when atop his horse Iverson ignores the American flag under a white flag of truce being trotted out by the Indian Chief and the order to attack is given. And Nelson pulls no punches here, the horses gallop over the American flag, treading it into the ground (I need not expand on that statement) and the soldiers murder, rape and burn the village down. And you see everything – full nudity during the rapes, blood is spilled, gunshots erupt in flesh, limbs are chopped off (cleverly using amputees and false limbs) and no one is spared, women and children are the victims here. Nelson does not shy away, children are shot in full view, a whole scene is dedicated to the shooting of cowering women and children – the pull back of the gleefully laughing soldiers as they hold back Lee and she screams and screams in anguish is one of the most shocking scenes of all. And even my describing all this will still not prepare you for the full impact of this scene – it is utterly devastating and it caused a storm of protest for censors around the globe. Here in the UK the cinema version was cut, the home video was cut, in fact it still is (though that is for horse falls rather than the violence now) and the USA fared even worse with a complete re-cut to lessen the impact to almost nothing. And to do so ruins the films narrative – you have been lulled into that false sense of security, the blossoming love-story, clumsy that it might be, to such a degree that even the foreboding does not prepare you for that shock ending; it is powerful, provocative and justified. The film presented in this Blu-ray is the full and uncut version.
One thing that I’m not sure about is the film’s advertising poster which was used worldwide and can be seen in the leader to this review. Quite apart from the title which does have connotations to the ‘blue’ movies that were becoming significantly mainstream in the early seventies, the picture of a naked, tied squaw offers images that the film simply does not deliver on (you cannot count a bound blooded naked squaw) and whist it is in keeping with the ‘blind alley’ that the story follows I don’t actually care much for this type of exploitation. But if that is the only complain about a film that has stayed with me since I first saw it some twenty years (or more) ago then it is a testament to its raw power that even now, it can shock and appal. And it is only fitting that it should as this was the first time the mainstream was made aware of just how the west was won. There is no glory, just the rape and pillage of a nation. And from this film on the balance has started to be addressed.
Watch with caution, but watch none the less.