Friday, 10 September 2010

Soldier Blue (1970)

Country: USA

For anyone interested in the history of screen violence and the minefield of debates surrounding censorship, the western Soldier Blue will be an inevitable stop on the journey. Soldier Blue was a film dogged by controversy due to the brutality and sadism of its denouement, but it has much to thank Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) for. Peckinpah’s revisionist lamentation for the old west was marked by a hitherto unseen relationship to violence, and thus opened up the territory for a slew of filmmakers itching to push the boundaries of taste and decency within the confines of commercial filmmaking. In both the US and the UK Soldier Blue was heavily cut, and its only in recent years that audiences have been given the opportunity to se uncut prints on DVD. As well as offering a none too subtle allegory of a much publicised American military atrocity in Vietnam, the film also fed into a mini movement at the time which sought to remedy the regressive stereotypical depiction of native Indians. Although Soldier Blue is clear in its sympathies, there is an exaggeration and over statement in relation to its anti-war stance, and it totally lacks the depth, character, and pathos of its immediate contemporary Little Big Man (1970).

Based on the novel Arrow in the Sun by Theodore V. Olsen, the screenplay by John Gay is a major failure. The film is book ended by two major set pieces, and in between these bloodthirsty moments there is very little to recommend. The bulk of the film is a journey across the American landscape by Cresta Lee (Candice Bergen) and Honus Gent (Peter Strauss) as they make their way to the relative safety of Fort Reunion. After seeing his company massacred by a band of Cheyenne, whose leader is intent on reclaiming Cresta as his wife, Honus is not particularly well disposed to the indigenous peoples. He also has an absurdly idealised vision of the conflict between the military and the Indians which borders on gullible. Cresta on the other hand has lived with the Cheyenne, knows their customs and values, and is sympathetic to their cause. Her character traits as a result of this close interaction with the Indians includes a foul mouth and a general coarseness - very progressive. The journey across the land is basically a device by which Cresta indoctrinates Honus into her pacifist and pro-Indian sentiments. This wouldn’t be a bad thing, were it not for the fact that part of the reason for ‘soldier blue’s’ eventual change of mind is that he wants to fuck Cresta. This whole middle section of the film plays out like a romantic comedy, with a series of misadventures that includes a duel to the death with a Kiowa brave which oddly is played for laughs. A cameo by Donald Pleasence as the ridiculously named Isaac Q Cumber is mystifying, and although the film raises the issue of arms dealing, it fails to follow through with any meaningful conclusions. The tone is wildly uneven which results in the final massacre of a peaceful Cheyenne village feeling as though its been tacked on specifically for the purpose of shocking the audience.

There is no doubt that these final moments are harrowing, but they eventually become so embellished and amplified that it begins to lose all meaning. We are treated to gang rape, decapitations, and the merciless slaughter of women and children. But the characters caught up in this chaos are so unbelievable and the violence so arbitrary, that it becomes utterly hollow and pointless. For example we are asked to believe that Colonel Iverson (John Anderson) acts purely out of a vanity for his place in history, his determination to secure this leads him to ignore the flag of truce. The writer aims to make the character the distillation of pure evil, but the casting of Anderson means we have a mindless sadist who is also charming, witty, and charismatic. Honus transforms from a simpering and feeble weakling whose belief in the army is total, to a man willing to risk court martial to save Indian lives. This may be a pro-Indian film, but the film offers us no access to Indian characters - the point of view is unbendingly that of the white man. The Indians mouthpiece is a white woman -  the whole thing stinks of hypocrisy.

Soldier Blue is also hopelessly miscast, and the director Ralph Nelson is unable to tie up the moral and racial hypocrisies of the film. I’m sure the motives of all involved were pure, but the film also had to sell. The promotional material which emphasises the shocking nature of the content illustrates precisely what was intended to lure audiences in. This is why the final massacre sequence which distils the liberal, anti-war, pro-Indian sentiment is so problematic. The fact that the film is based on true events that occurred in Colorado in 1864 is a total irrelevance, by this point the filmmakers are fully committed to their juvenile attitude to the issues. Soldier Blue is a film that purports to have liberal and pacifist intentions, it wishes to communicate an anti-war message, but it does so within a commercial framework that celebrates war, violence, and misery. Were it not for the ravishing and beautiful cinematography of Robert B. Hauser, and the out of place and jaunty score by Roy Budd, this insulting and aolescent western would be unwatchable.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. Oddly enough, my dad is always going on about this film and how shocking and harrowing he found it - the way he talks about it, you'd think it was an earth-shattering masterpiece, so I've always wondered why it's so rarely talked about or screened... I guess your review gives me the answer Shaun!

  2. Thanks for dropping by Ben - I was surprised to see this rated a 6.8 on IMDB, so there are people out there who think a great deal of it. I guess a film like this is meant to be divisive. I just felt it didnt have the courage of its convictions. The characters ultimately fail the premise, in the right hands this could have been a monumental western.

  3. I enjoyed this one quite a bit. Nelson said in an interview he intentionally wanted the film to be less less serious till the ending arrived so as to make it more grim for the audience.

    Actually, according to Nelson, the original version of the movie was far more nasty than what's there now. I have a book on the making of the film and the level of violence was incredible. At first Nelson was going to leave the film as it was, but decided after a test screening that it was too horrific and cut a lot of stuff out. There's one image in the book of cut footage showing a soldier waving Spotted Wolf's head in the air after severing it with his knife. There's another 'Gore Western' out there called THE HUNTING PARTY, Shaun. If you haven't seen it already, it's pretty good, too, but not as good as SOLDIER BLUE in my opinion. It is very bloody and grim, though. Candice Bergen is in that one as well with Gene Hackman and Oliver Reed.

  4. Thanks for that informative comment Venom - it was most appreciated. I do think that the intentions of the filmmakers were noble, but somewhere along the way it just doesnt gel into a cohesive whole. I think my main problem is that I had no emotional investment in any aspect of the film. I havent seen 'The Hunting Party', but Hackman and Reed in a film together has sold me already...I must find a copy of that.


  6. This movie reminded me of The Trial of Billy Jack. Painfully long, unintentionally funny, message applied with the subtlety of a steamroller, and capped off with a ludicrous massacre designed to beat the audience into submission.

    BTW what does Anonymous mean by "so-called United States of America"? The Civil War ended quite awhile ago.

  7. I haven't seen THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK Groggy, but your view on SOLDIER BLUE is succinctly put, and in my view entirely accurate.

    I haven't a clue what the anonymous poster meant, but I do try to post all comments, even if they are an illiterate mess.

    Thanks for stopping by :-)

  8. Soldier Blue is by no means a perfect film but I do have to say if anything it is one of my favorites as it turned my sense of American History as a teen on its head and made me go and read anything I could on Native Americans, granted Little Big Man did a much better job at it but you need to look at films in the context of when they were made.
    In regards to the violence no one would say anything against say "Schindler's List" which I found unwatchable upon first viewing because of the violence( I am not comparing Solider Blue to Schindler's List). It was a realistic depiction of WW2. The reality of what happened at Sand Creek or any other event of its nature on American soil is far worse. The barbarity perpetrated against the Indians by so called civilized people is unimaginable. I specify civilized people as both sides during the western expansion where pretty nasty to one other. Could the issue be that here in the U.S. there is still a disbelief and unecceptance of the atrocities perpetrated upon the Indian tribes? In Europe, where there is no guilt regarding the genocide of Native Americans, Soldier Blue was a success and to this day is considered a classic of the Western genre.

  9. I watched this film because I remember a friend talking about it in junior high school when it came out. I found Ms. Bergen not too believable, Donald P. fun, as always, and the story of their journey through the country to be rather tedious and sentimental. And yes, Little Big Man was much more well done.

    Still, I can't dump on this film the way you and others have. I think you underestimate the degree of self-righteousness and hypocrisy of white men and the army regarding the Indians. I did not find Iverson the least bit incredible. Nor did the violence seem to me cartoonish, as another reviewer said. Reading historical works on the actual events of the Indian Wars will dispel that notion.

    Okay, not a very good film, but still, not a waste of time.

  10. FOr those who find the charcter of Iverson (Colonel John Chivington in real life) unbelievable or the violence over the top and cartoonish, the reality of what happened at Sand Creek (the massacre Soldier Blue portrays), is far worse then anything ever put on screen. teh majority of the Indians were women and children and old people, the warriors were out hunting. They raised a white flag of truce and an American flag, as they were peaceful. Everyone was scalped children as well, women were raped, there was at least one report of a woman having her womb cut out. Bodies including children were dismembered and the parts used as trophies. Genitalia of both sexes cut out as well as children and children were also used as target practice.

  11. This film is brilliant and a one of kind depiction of the horrors of the Indian wars (ask any Indian, yes there are some still alive). It's no surprise that the master Tarantino devotes so much screen time to this poster in Death Proof.

  12. I think alot of americans are too up their own asses to understand what the movie is about. It could be shame inducing and challenge america to look at it,s place in the world.
    Custer in little big man and Iverson are very similar, ego inflated characters.
    Are we agreed its a nice theme song....


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