Sunday, February 26, 2006

Lost in Time (Buffalo Soldiers, 2001)

One hilarious bit of trivia about the movie Buffalo Soldiers: the title in Germany was Buffalo Soldiers, Army Go Home! That, of course, is the spin they put on a movie essentially released in 2004, though made in 2000 and slated for original release in 2001, because that's the sentiment that's being reflected in the current era of unilateralism. You wouldn't think we'd won the cold war in a good part by gambling with West Germany and West Germans: scores of divisions, tactical nukes, and brinksmanship for over forty years, the only frontier where US and Soviet troops faced off across the barbed wire. No, these days it's all about whether you can print cartoons and toxic waste dumps of old armored vehicle lubricants and evacuaton hospitals. What have you done for me lately, eh.

Buffalo Soldiers is set in 1989, and one of the schticks in this tale of drugged out, corrupt, stealing Sad Sacks cum Sergeant Bilkos is that you constantly see scenes of the Berlin Wall falling and the end of communism -- in the background, on TVs playing around. It's meant to be some kind of poetic or symbolic device, I suppose, about the crumbling relevancy of the US Army or maybe military power in general or maybe just a contrast between the power plays in the plot and real life. But I think it's kind of a hollow device in the end, because it's not really used to drive any point home. And in any event, it seems obvous to me that the original mise en scene, the ambient geweltschaft, wasn't the Army of the late 1980s, but that of the late 1970s. The army wasn't taking in the rejects and high school dropouts and kids sent there by the judge insted of to prison by the late 80s: the volunteer army had, in fact, become the kind of well-oiled machine full of esprit de corps that a citizen-volunteer army had the potential to be, and Buffalo Soldiers, in an attempt to be acidic, is a bit off-target.

Personally, I think it's all the more hilarious to envision a bunch of dopeheads guarding nukes and running battle tanks over filling stations in the late 1970s, when we were still going toe to toe with the Commies, because the absurdity of the conflict in cultures was that much more stark. The whole subplot with the command master sergeant's history in Vietnam and the domesticated status of his nearly adult daughter would've made more sense in the tailing period of the 1970s than the 1980s. And as I can attest to, living in a military community just isn't the same as it once was, being that paradoxically socialized existence where Big Brother hands it all to you and all you have to do is do whatever you're told to do. That uncertain cusp between the old army and the new army in the late 1970s was full of all sorts of contradictions that Buffalo Soldiers tries hard to capitalize on. Even the title is a bit of an anomoly: the old reggae cry to American blacks, harkening back to the memories of the elite but still segregated black troops of the Indian wars, one oppressed minority sent by the Man to go oppress another minority even more. I don't quite get that in the 1980s, and especially without more compelling black characters in the movie to underscore the racial tensions of having a "volunteer" army of the underclass be in charge of the nation's arms, the way I got the sense in the late 1970s.

Another movie I felt the same way about at the time it came out was Bull Durham, which was a pretty good movie. But the whole set-up screamed of the mid-1960s, not the mid-1980s, from the discussions of Susan Sontag to the sense of genteel decline of the minor leagues at that point. If you're going to do a story about individual character triumphing over the decline and fall of western civilization, best to pick your nadir to make a point. Minor league baseball in the 1980s was already well on the way back, and Crash Davis would've been signing autographs and doing interviews for SportsCenter, not toiling in obscurity with only a line in the Sporting News to show for a career achievement.

Now what are we going to do, Gomer?

And of course the other weird factoid about Buffalo Soldiers was it got quashed on release because it came out right after 9/11, and it was not viewed as commercially or politically expedient to have a film that did not show the US military in the best light. We've got the anti-hero, the amiable Ray Elwood, and the bumbling careerist officer from a wealthy background, Colonel Berman, who of course is manipulated all over the map by Ray, but in a friendly symbiotic way. Each man goes about his own meaningless business, one for gelt, the other for a shiny star on his shoulder. Enter the heavy, the straight career enlisted man who's seen it all, who knows he's smarter than any officer and that he's got to prove he's the alpha dog, Sergeant Lee. He's going to get Ray in line, he is. Complications ensue from this conflict. So far we have the basic plot outline used in most McHale's Navy episodes. Can't have that anymore, that's a September 10th mindset, eh?

Things with the Army these days are so serious, in fact, I'm not even sure you could make Three Kings again. Hollywood's tried to make a couple of films, or at least TV shows, about the war-in-progress, notably the kind of difficult to watch Over There (which, bending over backwards to try to be authentic, ended up about as fakey as an episode of Combat), and fails and fails again. It's because in all phases of war, it's hard as hell to figure out what's going on until well after it's over.

That in turn is why I think a movie like Buffalo Soldiers would've been better off set a bit further back. Not only would the distance give some perspective, it would give some safety for the viewer to think about the context without having to get defensive towards the present-day Army. Indeed, since the current US military, at least below those ranks where Eagles and Stars fly, is as professional and dedicated and well-trained and educated military as the world has ever seen, it would take a real idiot to confuse what goes on on-screen with Buffalo Soldiers with Operation Iraqi Freedom. Yet I think there's a strong underlying question about running our army in a foreign land: why are we there? Why do we bring ourselves over, essentially unchanged, into a foreign land, and remain unchanged? How is it that we can go thousands of miles from home and remain an island unto ourselves? Can I and I survive in Babylon? (The irony, of course, from the Marley lexical quilt is that we now are quite literally in the actual Babylon.)

I once wrote that I thought that Saving Private Ryan was one of the most dishonest movies ever made. My basic point was that the filmmakers made a big deal about the "authenticity" of everything, right down to buying up remaining stocks of original uniforms vintage 1944 to clad the actors with. The version of "authenticity" had a sting to it because of the graphic violence of the movie, particularly the opening scenes. But the technique was more to make a fake war documentary, right down to copping the visual feel of old kodachrome 16 mm stock, and wrap it around a ludicrous "Why We Fight" story that was as cornball and hackneyed as any porpaganda film that was made during World War II. I was watching Guadalcanal Diary the other day (featuring a young Anthony Quinn, by the way, in a bit part), which is as strong an exemplar as you might find of the formulaic war picture, and enjoyed it a lot more than I did Saving Private Ryan. Despite all the campiness, racism, and bloodless violence, the film is authentic in a way because it captures the feeling of what it was like to be on the losing side of a war (as we were in 1942-43) and desperately trying to keep it together to see the struggle out. It's got immediacy which trumps the anachronisms, and real immediacy in that it was rushed out soon after the events depicted had transpired (even though, as history, it's complete junk.) The king of that genre has to be Wake Island, which was made in 1942 and depicts (sort of) an Alamo-like loss by US forces in December 1941. As propaganda, I have utterly no sense of how it might've been received by its audience at the time. The reality of the atrocities at Wake Island was barely known even by the authorities back then, and what really happened -- a massacre of hundreds of civilians, the brutalization of US POWs in ways that even the North Vietnamese or Sadaam's goons didn't quite come close to -- and an open question about what resistance to the invasion of the island really accomplished, certainly contemporary audiences had utterly no clue about any of that. As a rallying cry, it was a way of taking horror and chunking it up into something motivating. Saving Private Ryan had none of that honesty to it, because it was meant as an hommage, a re-writing of history that ultimately divorced itself too far from the fear, the terror, the killing to really make a reasonable point about motivation. (My proposed solution for that movie at the time was to have the final scene be a pull-back to show the tombstone was actually Private Ryan's, and the narrator/survivor old man would've been the technical corporal played by Jeremy Davies, the guy who couldn't pull the trigger until he had unarmed prisoners in front of him to kill. Wouldn't that have made the movie play differently?)

We don't get contemporary war movies, perhaps in part because this is a kind of shadow war that's a war largely because the powers that be are calling it a war. It's just difficult to know what to rally around, much less how to rally the movie-watching public. One seems to glean through the fog of history that FDR wasn't going around in 1942 saying we were winning that war just yet, but then again national survival seemed significantly more at stake and obviously so than in our present day circumstances.

In between -- that era represented by Buffalo Soldiers -- there was that long war of attrition, the Cold War, an era of vicious little conflicts punctuated by long periods of boredom. And in the end I guess that's why I still liked the movie. Even displaced out of its natural setting and time in a way that is kind of jarring and patently unfair, it does have a sense of chaotic truth to it. Nice guys get out, the operators survive, the brutalists do, in the end, eat their own livers.

Maybe someday someone is going to do a movie that will explain Abu Ghraib's Lord of the Flies groupthink. If they do, it won't actually be about Operation Iraqi Freedom: better to set it someplace else, but use those contemporary emotions to fuel the authenticity. Maybe I should say honesty instead of authenticity, since the latter is an abused word. An honest reckoning is one which pulls no punches, and in that regard I think I can recommend Buffalo Soldiers, even if it's not the kind of desperate testimony of losing ground, fingers tearing for a handhold, that mght help us through these dark times.

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