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Retro Review: SOLDIER BLUE (1970)

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SOLDIER BLUE
(US - 1970)

Directed by Ralph Nelson. Written by John Gay. Cast: Candice Bergen, Peter Strauss, Donald Pleasence, John Anderson, Jorge Rivero, Dana Elcar, James Hampton, Mort Mills, Bob Carraway, Martin West, Jorge Russek, Aurora Clavell. (R, 115 mins)

A revisionist western inspired by the 1864 Sand Creek massacre in the Colorado Territory that also tries to be a then-topical Vietnam allegory, Ralph Nelson's SOLDIER BLUE was a controversial misfire in the summer of 1970 (though its theme song by Indigenous Canadian singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie became a big hit in the UK) and despite some positive critical reassessment and an inevitable cult following over the ensuing 50 years, it hasn't really improved with age. Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), SOLDIER BLUE generated some buzz at the time of its release for its sickeningly violent climax, with a cavalry attack on a Cheyenne tribe so gory and over-the-top it that out-splatters THE WILD BUNCH and goes several steps beyond, with heads blown apart, limbs hacked off, children being decapitated, trampled, and/or impaled, a Cheyenne woman gang-raped and getting her left breast sliced off, and a laundry list of other unmentionables in a seemingly endless barrage of atrocities that remains shocking today and seems more in line with an Italian jungle exploitation grinder. That the perpetrators are American soldiers attacking "savages" is a salient point that directly invokes both Sand Creek and the 1968 My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. The finale of SOLDIER BLUE needed to be as difficult to watch as it is, certainly one of the most disturbing depictions of historical carnage ever seen in a mainstream American film, but it's such a tedious buildup in a generally standard western that the abrupt shift in tone seems like a tacked-on afterthought. Imagine if you can a pre-WILD BUNCH Hollywood western that feels like it was started by Henry Hathaway and finished by Ruggero Deodato.






A cavalry escorting military fiancee Cresta Marybelle Lee (Candice Bergen) across the Colorado Territory to her husband-to-be is attacked by the Cheyenne warriors of the feared Spotted Wolf (Jorge Rivero). The only survivors are Cresta and Private Honus Gant (Peter Strauss), who must make their way across the harsh terrain to the safety of her fiance Lt. Johnny McNair's (Bob Carraway) unit at Fort Battalion. Along the way, they brave the elements, deal with a shortage of food and water, have a run-in with Kiowa tribesmen, and encounter a duplicitous trader named Isaac Q. Cumber (Donald Pleasence), who's been getting rich by selling military weapons to various tribes. Complicating matters is that the headstrong, independent Cresta sympathizes with the "savages" and spent two years married to Spotted Wolf. Of course, she and Gant will develop feelings for one another, but there's a lot of bickering and arguing along the way, with the brash, vulgar, uninhibited Cresta and the fussy, whiny, uptight Gant turning into the stars of a mismatched "...if they don't kill each other first!" buddy movie as he expresses continued dismay at her behavior while she derisively refers to him as "Soldier Blue" for his naive, puritanical ways.


The opening attack on Gant's cavalry unit is well-choreographed and features some attention-getting Peckinpah-esque bloodletting, with a memorable shot of a bullet ripping through the cheek of Gant's clownish best friend Private Menzies (James Hampton). But the opening and closing sequences are tonally at odds with everything in the sluggish middle. Bergen and Strauss (in just his second film after his 1969 debut as Michael Douglas' younger brother in HAIL, HERO) both deliver seriously grating performances, with Bergen's especially feeling much too 1970 counterculture to work in an 1864 period setting (when John Anderson's psychopathic colonel sees Cresta and harumphs "When I see young people today behaving like that, I just can't help but wonder what this goddamn country's coming to," the point is a little too on-the-nose). Strauss' Gant is one of the least-appealing western genre heroes you'll ever see, and it's little wonder that SOLDIER BLUE began and effectively ended his career as a big-screen leading man. He next did Sergio Grieco's obscure 1971 Italian desert adventure MAN OF LEGEND before embarking on a successful TV career, vying with Richard Chamberlain for the "King of the Miniseries" title with must-see blockbusters like 1976's RICH MAN, POOR MAN and its 1978 sequel, and 1981's MASADA, along with an Emmy-winning turn in the 1979 TV-movie THE JERICHO MILE, the directing debut of Michael Mann. Strauss only made occasional appearances in feature films for the next two decades (1976's THE LAST TYCOON, 1983's SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE) before aging into the character actor phase of his career in the late '90s and into the '00s. Now 73, Strauss remains busy, and was most recently spotted in multiplexes in a supporting role in 2018's OPERATION FINALE and he guest-starred on a February 2020 episode of GREY'S ANATOMY.


Perhaps SOLDIER BLUE needed a more risk-taking director than Nelson, a high-end journeyman who directed Sidney Poitier and Cliff Robertson to Best Actor Oscars in 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD and 1968's CHARLY, respectively. Nelson was a top television director in the 1950s and generally took whatever big-screen assignment came his way, whether it was the 1964 Cary Grant comedy FATHER GOOSE, the 1966 Poitier/James Garner western DUEL AT DIABLO, or the 1976 Rock Hudson sci-fi/horror outing EMBRYO. SOLDIER BLUE has some valid points to make and the comparison between Sand Creek and My Lai is a legitimate one, but it needed someone with vision to properly pull it off. Nelson was a go-to "get it in the can" director, but at a time when American cinema was at a crossroads with the New Hollywood era being ushered in by the auteurist likes of BONNIE AND CLYDE and EASY RIDER, SOLDIER BLUE struggles to find its identity. It seems to have one foot in the formulaic, old-fashioned John Wayne westerns of the past and one in the post-WILD BUNCH "Bloody Sam"-style of the present and future. As a result, it never reconciles those discrepancies and ends up working at cross purposes. It's a western with a score by Roy Budd that invokes the grandiose majesty of a composer like Dimitri Tiomkin (HIGH NOON, GIANT), but it doesn't gel with off-the-charts levels of graphic violence and gory atrocities so extreme that it's legitimately surprising that the film somehow managed to avoid an X rating. Nowhere is that inability to settle on a tone more apparent than in Pleasence's unthreatening, almost comic-relief secondary bad guy, complete with his silly name and a set of ludicrous fake teeth to make him even more buffoonish. No politically-charged Vietnam-era allegory that features gang rape, breast mutilation, realistic scalpings, copious amounts of horse-tripping, and children being decapitated, impaled, and trampled as buckets of blood splash across the screen in one stomach-turning shot after another should include a total goofball character named "Isaac Q. Cumber."


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