Buffalo Soldiers is Australian director Gregor Jordan's second feature film, between Two Hands (1999) and Ned Kelly (2003). Delayed in its release for two years because of the events of September 11 and the war on Iraq, it turns out to be Jordan's best work to date.
When he introduced Buffalo Soldiers as the Closing Night offering of the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, Jordan expressed surprise at the controversy his movie has stirred in America, meekly saying: "I didn't mean to offend anyone".
And indeed, it is not an especially political film. Although it has been rather grandly compared to anti-war extravaganzas like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Dr Strangelove (1964), Buffalo Soldiers takes its cue more from M*A*S*H* – and maybe more from the TV sitcom of that name than the original 1970 film by Robert Altman.
The story (from a novel by Robert O'Connor) concerns an American army base in West Germany in the late '80s. Bored and ever-ready to scam, the soldiers amuse themselves in ways that thoughtlessly lead, on occasion, to violence and death. With a calculated irony, Jordan treats these catastrophes with the same flip indifference shown by the men: a second after something terrible has happened, it is forgotten, swept under the carpet.
The focus is on Ray (Joaquin Phoenix), whose captivatingly ambiguous attitude carries the film. As in all of his movies to date, Jordan displays a particular affection for the life and death struggles of Alpha men – especially the mythic, symbolic clash of fathers and sons over the women they mutually desire.
In Buffalo Soldiers this roughly Oedipal conflict is displaced into two different story lines – firstly, Ray's affair with the grasping wife (Elizabeth McGovern) of his clueless superior, Berman (Ed Harris), and then, more dramatically, his pursuit of Robyn (Anna Paquin), sexy daughter of the tyrannical Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn).
Although there are dutiful references to the Cold War, the Gulf War, Vietnam and the fall of the Berlin Wall, these form a mere background to the male drama of power and authority.
Buffalo Soldiers is sometimes overstated – especially in its voice-over narration, which spells out themes that are plainly evident already. And Jordan is too fond of grandiloquent, pop-out metaphors, like the motif of falling which is broadcast from start to end.
The film is inadvertently provocative, in the current political climate, for one, simple reason: it dares to suggest that soldiers are flawed, sometimes monstrous human beings, rather than 'our boys' marching off to fight an ideologically pure war.
© Adrian Martin August 2003