Times of conflict can produce the strangest forms of censorship. During 1991’s Desert Storm conflict, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’ and Laura Brannigan’s ‘Love is a Battlefield’ were banned from UK airwaves, Massive Attack were pressurized into just calling themselves Massive on the cover of their first album and television stations refrained from programming anti-war films such as M*A*S*H or Catch-22, opting instead for more innocuous entertainment.
Ten years on and Massive Attack once again found themselves releasing an album during a Gulf conflict, but this time their name remained the same and their anti-war feelings were expressed without public censure (which is more than could be said for The Dixie Chicks). However, the climate had not improved enough to convince the makers of Buffalo Soldiers to release the movie in the 18 months following its premiere at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival. 9/11 certainly had much to do with the initial delay in the film’s release. However, as other withheld movies finally hit the screen, Gregor Jordan’s American debut still showed no signs reaching of the light of day, let alone projector. For some, this may have offered the promise of a biting satire at the expense of the US military, in the spirit of Heller, Kubrick and Altman. Robert O’Connor’s novel certainly offered such an opportunity. Unfortunately, good things do not always come to those who wait.
Buffalo Soldiers is set in West Germany in 1989, in the days leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. On an army camp rife with apathy and inaction, Ray Elwood has built a business out of getting what people want, from drugs and cars to satisfying the sexual needs of the station commander’s bored wife. And his future financial security appears safe, thanks to the discovery of a large shipment of tactical weapons. All that stands in his way is a new staff sergeant and his precocious daughter.
Jordan’s film starts well, with a reference to Slim Picken’s final moments in Dr Strangelove and a parody of the opening shot of Patton. The first ten minutes also includes the funniest scene, reminiscent of the anarchic humour of M*A*S*H, when a tank driven by crack-addled GI’s rampages through a picturesque German town. After that, things don’t go so much downhill, as just fizzle out. For all its pretensions of being anti-establishment, Buffalo Soldiers is little more than a conventional comedy drama with a smattering of black humour thrown in to give it an edge. Imagine a more ambivalent version of Harold Ramis’ Stripes and you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
A member of the US army setting up a drug cartel on an overseas base throws up any number of opportunities for a more explosive film. Unfortunately, Eric Weiss and Nora Maccoby’s screenplay seems intent on playing safe, drawing the drama away from what is happening in the outside world, only to refer to it briefly in the climactic scenes, through a television broadcast of the collapsing wall. Likewise, many of the characters are too broadly sketched to offer anything more damning than farce. Ed Harris, cast against type as the bumbling Station Commander and Scott Glen as the hardened Robert E. Lee (get the joke?) both offer strong support, but would be just at home in any comedy featuring authority figures, from Bilko to the Police Academy series. And if anyone was in doubt that Lee makes the staff sergeants of Full Metal Jacket and An Officer and a Gentleman look like puppy dogs, his declaration that he loved his tour of duty in Vietnam emphasises his psychotic personality and hammers the final nail in the coffin marked ‘subtle’.
In one of the film’s early scenes, Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ is playing in a bar. This was previously used as a very different battle cry, in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a film that raged against every conceivable – and real – issue that was wrong with America. Whether the use of the song in Jordan’s film was intentional or just a general kick against the picks, it highlights the most troubling aspect of the film. Buffalo Soldiers is neither a rant against injustice or a blazing critique of American militarism (the flawed Three Kings at least managed to broach this subject). What it may inadvertently be is a litmus test of general opinion. The most radical aspect of this film is that some people could think it is. Now that does scare me.