'Buffalo Soldiers': Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2003

"Buffalo Soldiers" is a barracks-room ballad in a key of bitter discord and black humor, and has already excited much comment for the contempt it aims at the currently beloved institution known as the United States Army. However, most people who hate the movie haven't been in the army, any army, or even the Boy Scouts.

So while "Buffalo Soldiers" is far from perfect, it captures almost exactly the deadpan sarcasm and world-class bitterness most privates feel toward the vaunted entity that has absorbed them when they learn, on Day 1, that like all organizations it is flawed by vanity, ambition, dysfunction, politics, stupidity and loud noises. Then on Day 2 they learn that early wake-ups, making your own bed, and toilets without stalls are involved. (I've never come back from that last one; war is hell.)

You could say: This rebellious anger is an immature reaction to a large, sloppy institution that exists to accomplish large, sloppy missions along the lines of breaking things and killing people, and which will therefore by its very nature be crude, cruel and absurd. It is indeed an immature reaction, but those who experience it tend to have a good reason for their immaturity: They are young.

The movie, based on a novel by an ex-GI turned English professor, takes a look at the pathologies that inevitably occur when large numbers of reluctant young men are forced to cohabit in bleak dormitories and do jobs they hate for people they despise. It's a draftee's story, in other words, and I must say, from two years' experience as one of America's worst soldiers, that it feels very "army" somehow. Not "war," but "army," as they are two different things. Moreover, it will feel instantly familiar to anyone who served in a draftee's army. Why it's set in 1989, long after the end of the draftee army, is a mystery to me, as well as a possible inaccuracy.

But set in 1989 it is, in Germany 44 years after the end of a glorious crusade. There, on that darkling plain, the infantry and the armor practice for the Big Clash-by-Night when the yet-unfallen Sovs send their T-76s over the border. Some guys have all the fun, but where there's infantry and armor, there's also supply -- and they have none of the fun. Theirs is not to do and die, theirs is to stockpile and ship the stuff necessary for the doing and dying. It is inherently boring work, and so the boys look for amusements, as boys will: Crime is one, sex another, baiting the lifers (as the career soldiers were called) is still another. But the sum total of these is bigger: It is making a buck off the system.

In "Catch-22" his name was Milo Minderbinder; in "Kelly's Heroes" it was Sergeant Crapgame, and in "Stalag 17" it was Sergeant J.J. Sefton. In "Buffalo Soldiers," it's Spec. 4 Ray Elwood (feral but intelligent Joaquin Phoenix): That is, the man who can get you anything. He flourishes in contained hierarchical societies and represents the subversive inevitability of the market. Parched by boredom, his creativity finds mischievous outlets, so Elwood, who basically runs the unit, also has links to black-market profiteers, heroin traffickers and ultimately illegal weapons merchants. Oh yes: He's the hero of the movie.

That's the aspect of "Buffalo Soldiers" that has so many so upset and explains why the film sat on the shelf after being purchased by Miramax on Sept. 10, 2001. It turned out to be exactly the wrong date for a military satire. Is today's date any better? I don't know.

Therefore I would advise professional military people and anyone in the White House or the Pentagon just to avoid seeing the thing. It's not worth the heartburn. It's not that important, so why put yourself through it? The climactic scene in which a squad of corrupt MPs and a crew of corrupt commandos fight a battle to the death in the foggy confines of a basement full of heroin distillery fumes will just ruin your sleep for days.

Others will love "Buffalo Soldiers," because they will understand that it's an exaggeration, meant to spotlight the tendencies of all large hierarchies to reward the incompetent, ignore the evil, punish the talented and particularly to crush the loyal, so that the only nobility left is the nobility of opposition. Elwood, a worm-king and charm boy who has his C.O. (a silly, feckless Ed Harris in one of many portrayals of officers as a separate idiot class) completely tamed, who works in peace with the corrupt MP sergeant who is the post's main heroin supplier, finds his applecart upset when the new top arrives. Top? That's what they call the first sergeant, the head NCO of the company. Top (played with gravelly authority by Scott Glenn) takes one look at the cushy life Elwood has invented for himself, and decides it's time to take him down a peg or two. One thing a first sergeant can't stand, it's a Spec. 4 with a Rolex and a Mercedes who lives like a major general.

That's basically the game, the fight between Top, with the rules on his side, and Elwood, who knows how to exploit the system with maximum cunning. Two things are in play: Two trucks' worth of weapons Elwood has managed to secure (after an accident orphaned the vehicles) and Top's daughter, played by Anna Paquin. The problem: He dates her to get an edge on Top, but then he falls in love.

The highest accomplishment of "Buffalo Soldiers" is its wise invocation of that weirdest of all precincts, the post, and the odd culture it spawns. There, on duty, one is required to uphold rigorous hierarchical obligation to your superior, but off duty, in the PX or on civilian streets, you may see him with his wife and kids while you have yours with you. Extremely awkward acknowledgments are the basic transaction of this culture. I can't tell you how vividly the movie brought all this back to an ex-Spec. 4 and how cleverly it penetrates the idiocies of a system designed for war and valuable in war, but extremely unwieldy in peace. You think: Give these guys somebody to kill, so they won't kill each other.

I think the director, Gregor Jordan, pretty much loses it in the second half, where he remembers he's making a movie, not invoking a culture, and aims to supply Armageddon on the sly. The ending is utterly preposterous. Your best bet is to leave at the end of 60 minutes; in fact, pretend you've just seen a good "60 Minutes" segment on supply-unit morale problems and you'll go home satisfied.

Buffalo Soldiers (97 minutes, at Landmark Bethesda Row and the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated R for profanity, violence and extreme attitudes, as well as moral squalor and lack of respect for field-grade officers.

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