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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Soldier Blue (1970) review


SOLDIER BLUE 1970

Candice Bergen ("Cresta" Marybelle Lee), Peter Strauss (Honus Gant), Donald Pleasence (Isaac Q. Cumber), Jorge Rivero (Spotted Wolf), John Anderson (Colonel Iverson)

"One of the most significant American films of all time"--BBC, 2004

The Short Version: This film, once bearing the moniker as the most savage film ever made, drew a line among viewers as either an unsung masterpiece, or a sloppily rendered western capitalizing on world altering events of the day. Whatever your opinion, it's a brazen and brave anti-war/pro-life production that turns the tables on popular genre conventions and classic perceptions of Native Americans in the cinema. As Leone made the US western his own, so does Nelson do with the Italian variants in fashioning a grueling assimilation full of ghastliness and grandeur. The phenomenon of SOLDIER BLUE is forever woven around its supremely sadistic finale which is "tame" compared with what was originally shot, but gruesomely recreates the all too real Sand Creek Massacre of 1864.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity and graphic violence***


After a paymaster detail is raided by a Cheyenne war party, a young private, Honus Gant and a woman, "Cresta" Marybelle Lee, being taken to Fort Reunion for her wedding, manage to escape. On their long journey through dangerous Indian country to reach the fort, the feisty and foul mouthed Marybelle, who spent two years among a Cheyenne tribe, gives the idealistic and gullible Honus a new-found perception of everything he's been taught to believe regarding Native Americans. He sees first hand the terrible nature of man when his comrades and commanding officers march on a peaceful Cheyenne village perpetrating obscene atrocities upon innocent women and children among the victims.


Ralph Nelson's much talked about, but little seen sadist western is one of the most divisive motion pictures in the history of cinema. Likely if it didn't have the perceived political connotations attached, it wouldn't have brought about the wealth of scorn it has proudly amassed since its release back in 1970. This is one of those 'love it or hate it' movies without the luxury of the middle ground to fall back on. In my own estimation the movie sparkles with brilliance more than it flounders and arguably succeeds in Nelson's initial mission to stir anger and revulsion in its audience.


Amazingly one of the most stubborn attitudes given the film is the denouncement of the brazen savagery perpetrated on the Indians by the "civilized" white man. There are still people to this day who have problems with the notion that the US military would resort to such regressive, maniacal barbarism despite documented evidence to the contrary; not to mention disturbingly similar occurrences since. The incident that the final twenty minutes derives its significance from has been classified as one of the darkest days in the history of mankind. To understand, or fathom what the director accomplished, or tried to accomplish (depending on ones own opinion), is made even more shocking by the historical implications of the factual event.

"Think of it, men! Put into your minds the dark abominations of these godless barbarians. Murder, rape, torture. And when you think of your comrades...fallen, butchered comrades...ask yourself--are we going to give them the same mercy? You just bet we are!"


The Sand Creek Massacre took place on November 29th, 1864. It was a purposely mounted assault on a peaceful Indian village made up of Cheyenne and Arapaho. What made this event even more deplorable was that these tribes had signed a treaty of peace even going so far as to waive more of their initially designated reserve properties after a surge of migrants saturated Cheyenne and Arapaho lands during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. Racism was prominent and Indians were not welcomed even on the land that had been signed over TO THEM. Leading up to the massacre, a number of Native Americans refused to cater to this dehumanizing deal and continued hunting on lands that were originally theirs to begin with. This led to a series of attacks and destruction of Cheyenne camps in Colorado. Not long after, two Cheyenne chiefs were gunned down indiscriminately by US soldiers setting off Cheyenne retaliation. As peace negotiations continued among a contingent of the tribes, chiefs Black Kettle and White Antelope were told to move their village to the eastern plains of Sand Creek Colorado and that they would be safe their, free of any aggression.


The vile, inhuman attack that followed was spearheaded by Colonel John Milton Chivington. Before the attack began, an American flag and a white flag of surrender were waved, but ignored by Chivington. The numbers vary, but close to 200 Indians, mostly women and children, were cut down in the most repulsive fashion. They were literally cut to pieces.

Note the heads stuck on the spears to the left and right of this image

Victims of all ages were scalped, decapitated, or brained with rifles. Others were castrated, dismembered, the severed limbs and even small babies adorning the soldiers sabers. "Battle Trophies" even included human fetuses and female genitalia. This reprehensible display of human bloodlust was reported as a valiant battle of heroism till the actual details of the inhuman devastation were revealed to the public. Astoundingly, no charges were brought against Chivington and his accessories. Instead, the horror of that day has remained a black blotch in American history.


Also of particular note is the total annihilation of General Custer and his regiment at the Little Big Horn in 1876 (there's a mistake in the film that Custer has already died in the battle during a conversation between Cresta and Honus regarding a less than safe passage that Honus wishes to take). The resulting mutilation of Custer and his men mirrors that of Sand Creek only the atrocities of that fateful November day in 1864, it was unarmed women, children and elders who fell under the rage of the US Army. Not to be outdone, yet another similar slaughter perpetrated by the US military occurred on December 29th, 1890 in what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre wherein a tribe of the Lakota Sioux were surrounded at close range and cut down. Those who escaped were hunted and killed without mercy. These, too, included women and children.


Yet another startlingly similar event took place in December of 1937 when the Japanese marched on the Chinese city of Nanking and proceeded to maim, mutilate, rape and murder hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians. This far more disastrous occurrence became known as the Nanking Massacre and like America's dark days of war, Japan's government attempted to cover up, deny, or gloss over the calamity they wrought. Just like those that questioned how civilized American soldiers could turn savage, much has been written as to why the Japanese would transform into neolithic mass murderers capable of some of the most repugnant methods of death that made even Hitler cringe.


Regardless of race, man's inhumanity to man and his propensity and overt willingness to wage war with one another is unchallenged throughout the ages. Nothing has changed. Given the sheer number of technological advancements made over the years, man, himself has changed little, if at all--a frightening lesson that has yet to be learned. The 1960s and 1970s was a turbulent time in American history due largely to our involvement in the Vietnam War. Despite the fact that Nelson's film was based on Theodore Olsen's novel 'Arrow In the Sun' and that the screenplay was written to conclude with a vicious massacre before the events at My Lai were revealed to the American public, parallels were bound to be made. What's most jolting is how similar the real life Sand Creek Massacre is to the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, March of 1968. For the victims of Sand Creek, it was a sadistic day of shame that is faithfully reconstructed in Nelson's movie.


Critical responses both then and now have lambasted Nelson and scriptwriter John Gay for its purported nauseating scenes of gratuity as well as envisioning a one sided argument in its "peaceful" depiction of the Native Americans against the guileful cruelty of the Caucasians. Oddly enough, they seem to forget the scores of American productions from years past that popularly label the Indians as warmongering scalp hunters existing only to be shot down by John Wayne and other larger than life big screen cowboys. But while the American military forces are shown to be callous, cold blooded automatons merciless in their violence, the Indians are perceived as predominantly passive. There's an ironic, yet beautifully shot sequence just prior to the beginning of the final massacre. Cresta is with the Cheyenne and her former husband, Spotted Wolf. We see the villagers and their children playing, herding around Cresta and Spotted Wolf with smiles all around. Suddenly a voice over drowns out the laughter. It's the hate speech given by Iverson and his wording of the "abominable...godless barbarians" conflicts with the images of the Cheyenne.


However, events from the opening of the movie mirror the finale in that the Indians are not pictured as strictly passive. Even knowing the history of what has happened to the Indians prior to the beginning of SOLDIER BLUE, the opening paymaster raid sees the Cheyenne ignore a white cloth surrender of one of the American soldiers. This is reflected at the end when Spotted Wolf carries with him the American flag and another of surrender colored white; both ignored by the approaching cavalry. Another reflective moment is right after the opening attack on the paymaster detail. Honus states something should be said for these dead men--a prayer. At the end of the movie after defenseless women and children have been senselessly slaughtered, Cresta mockingly asks if Honus has a prayer on hand for this gruesome aftermath. While the finale is the most talked about portion of the film, the middle portion is also bandied about, but usually with less than stellar commentary.


The subject of the overall liveliness and general joviality of the middle portion of the film is talked about with an odd, negative reverence in that it totally upsets the tone of the movie. As the film begins, the audience is given a warning as to what is coming at the films end via an opening title card. Approximately 25 minutes in, the picture becomes a journey of discovery mainly for Honus Gant, the naive young soldier, the spokesperson for the white washed image of American military values. His long excursion with Cresta is a slow learning experience for him which never takes hold till the climactic annihilation of the Cheyenne village when he's shocked at the level of depravity seemingly civilized men have fallen to. From the moment Honus and Cresta are brought together to the last scene they share--Honus is chained and hauled away with a number of others who refused Iverson's orders (the Chivington of the film) to butcher the innocent villagers.


Honus and Cresta are the noble, incorruptible plateau of human decency. Honus is blind to the truth, yet true to his ideals. Cresta is crude, yet blunt in her devotion to exposing the misconceptions of the Native American tribes. Their rocky jaunt to make Fort Reunion eventually brings them closer and emotionally attached even though Cresta was heading to the fort to marry another man (for his money, anyway). The audience becomes so engulfed in their escapades that by the time the concluding massacre rolls around, we are taken by surprise, regardless of the opening warning, and pounded and repeatedly stabbed by the sudden level of cruelty on display. But then upsetting the audience was Nelson's intention. He succeeds admirably orchestrating a horrific symphony of violence during the last 20 minutes.

"....You men here today...have succeeded in making another part of America a decent place for people to live. We have given the Indian a lesson he will not soon forget. For the rest of your lives, you men will hold your heads proud when this day is mentioned..."


At the time, the onscreen killing of children was a cinematic taboo. SOLDIER BLUE squashes that taboo under the stampeding hooves of horses. While the scenes of children being shot in the head, impaled, dismembered, or trampled by equine are disturbing, it's not nearly as grisly as what was removed from the film after a nervous test screening nearly broke out in riots. Among the edited carnival of cruelty that was removed from the originally cut down 135 minute version were shots of breasts being sliced off and batted around, children's limbs graphically severed (real amputees were employed for these shots!) and a little girls legs cut off by wagon wheels. A soldier gleefully cuts an Indians arms off before shooting another Cheyenne in the eye and also the fate of Spotted Wolf who has his head separated from his torso--the soldier hoisting his prize into the air before tossing it to another who then throws it off camera (We do see Spotted Wolf's head attached to the stirrup of a cavalryman). The viewer can place some of these omitted shots in the finished product such as the breast removal scene. We don't see the breast come off, but we do see the bloodthirsty soldier begin cutting away at her flesh before the camera itself cuts away.


For an American film from a reputed director (remember FATHER GOOSE with Cary Grant and Leslie Caron?), this movie was a dangerous undertaking and one that created controversy from virtually every venue it played and even those that banned it from being shown. Sadly, the only audience that caught the full strength version were the work print test screenings. Originally two different versions were prepared--one for the US market and a slightly stronger cut for European audiences, but the versions on DVD appear to be the same. In interviews Nelson stated he wanted to depict one of the worst travesties in American history and show it accurately and in the most visceral way possible. There are those who believe that this violence is merely gratuitous and counteracts the intentions of its makers. The same thing is said of Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), a film that is paradoxically different, but whose violence is echoed in Nelson's film in recalling the excruciating level of abject corruption in the medias presentation of "the truth".


With so much talk of the films violence and proposed/perceived meaning, the performances are equally divided amongst those who have discussed the picture. Personally, I had no problem with either Strauss or Bergen. Both deliver sound performances that derive the right amount of audience sympathy that carries them till the grim finale. Again, this "love story" of sorts is essential for preparing the unwitting viewers for what is coming--regardless of his color or nationality, man is ugly to man, plain and simple. Donald Pleasence is quite unpleasant as the creepy Cumber (his name derived from a cruel joke given him by his father), a sniveling "traitor" who sells guns to the Cheyenne so they may defend themselves from the US cavalry men. While we don't see him much, Jorge Rivero shines as Spotted Wolf. He does share one touching scene with Cresta towards the end. John Anderson brings out just the right amount of devout villainy in his brief scenes as the racist Colonel Iverson.


SOLDIER BLUE, like so many other 70s movies, is given a grandly melancholic theme song by noted peace activist Buffy Sainte-Marie. This sweeping 'love for the land and everything on it' main title tune captures the essence of the films anti-war message. The score by Roy Budd is also very listenable, sometimes soaring and other times encompassing an Italian western sensibility with periodic Morricone-isms. The cues for the ending massacre perfectly accentuate the shock wave of violence while the cue of choice at the end culminates with an eye opening piece of frivolity that some will find out of place. This orchestral selection acts as an extension of the victory grandstanding proclaimed by the wounded, but proud Colonel Iverson as he sits atop his horse in front of his regiment while the maimed and mutilated survivors of Sand Creek stand in solemn silence.


Called every name in the book, both positive and negative, SOLDIER BLUE was a huge success everywhere but in America. Considering BONNIE & CLYDE (1967) opened doors for excessive brutality in American films, others such as Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969) turned gory mayhem into a comic book. Nelson's film surpassed all others at the time and is far more visceral in that it's taken from history. If the film were to ever be restored to Nelson's original vision, it's likely the films power would stand with the current crop of grotesque cinema Americana.


While it's not a hippie western in the tradition of one of Sergio Corbucci's late 60s oaters (Corbucci reportedly disliked hippies immensely), the mood of "peace and love for everyone" is stamped all over this movie in its soundtrack, its sprawling cinematography (by Robert B. Hauser) and in its numerous speeches and proclamations about racism and hate. It's a three part affair--The beginning sets up the grim tone that overtakes the finale; the middle is the ethical, humanistic center; the ending is the ugly truth surrounding a truly tragic day and one that pulls no punches. Begging the question, "How much blood must be spilled for the price of freedom", Nelson's movie may be seen by some as a thinly veiled Vietnam allegory (something he has steadfastly denied since the films premiere), but one thing is irrepressibly certain--"Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."

This review is representative of the Lionsgate DVD


7 comments:

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, my dad could probably be called a political conservative, but he was also proud of his Native heritage -- he was 1/8 Indian -- and Soldier Blue was one of his favorite movies, Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse being other favorites from the same controversial period. I remember it being in frequent rotation in the early days of HBO, when I had to go to a friend's house to see it. So I was seeing Soldier Blue in all (or most) of its splendor when I was around 10 years old. When I learned later how controversial this film was, I wondered what the problem was. I have the thing on my Netflix streaming queue and propose to give it a fresh look soon. Thanks for a review that brought back strong memories.

venoms5 said...

I'm a conservative myself, Sam, and about as far from the left as you can get, but this really is a good movie and definitely a time capsule of the time in which it was made.

I passed the VHS tape of it in the video store dozens of times, but the 100 minute running time was what kept me from checking it out. So I didn't finally see it till 2006 when the DVD finally came out.

The book on the making of the film, which hit in 2008 is an excellent read and well worth the purchase albeit an expensive one.

Your welcome, Sam! I plan to have a review up of another gore western, THE HUNTING PARTY 1971 most likely tomorrow sometime.

A hero never dies said...

Fantastic review venoms5, I saw Soldier blue years ago as a gore film when I was looking for anything "extreme", the mix of hippie aesthetic and the bloody finale did not sit well with me. I was too young too appreciate it, I think I'll give it another try.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Excellent write up as ever Brian, of a film I don't particularly admire much. It's almost impossible to consider the film without recourse to its ideology (I believe its politics to be adolescent), and the shock and repulsed awe of its harrowing finale. But if we can put this to one side for the moment, one of the major problems with SOLDIER BLUE is that it fails as a narrative. It develops a number of subplots which go nowhere (the most notable is the Cumber episode, which adds nothing, aside from some very vague and underdeveloped comment on gun running). The journey of the two 'heroes' is incredibly dull and lifeless, undoubtedly due to the poor casting. The grace and dignity of the Indian people is consistently undermined by Bergen's character, whose rude boorishness is seen as a result of her time in Indian captivity. The episodic structure is intriguing, I'll give it that. Westerns rarely exhibit an episodic structure.

venoms5 said...

@ Martin: Thanks for the kind remarks, Martin! It's definitely a product of its time. Virtually everything about the changing social climate of the 60s is in this movie.

venoms5 said...

@ Shaun: Thanks again for a kind and concise response, Shaun! I figured the Cumber portion was mainly to show that there were Americans "sympathetic" to the Indians; part of the naive Honus's learning experience. It also gives him a crossroad as to whether to betray Cresta, or betray his duty as a soldier.

As far as Bergen's character, I saw her as the representation of the angry majority of the 1960s, only transplanted to the 1860s. Notice how calm and at peace she is with herself when in the company of the Cheyenne and also in the company of Honus once they have gotten to know each other emotionally and physically.

I'm willing to bet you won't be kind to Bergen in THE HUNTING PARTY if you haven't seen it yet. She's both mis-used and abused the duration of that picture!:)

alivenature said...

Thanks for taking me back to my days in college when I saw this film twice , some 35 to 40 years back. This film reveled before me the truth of the colonization of the America and the destruction of the culture and extermination of the American Indians. I hope that I will have opportunity to see this classic film once again in near future.

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