Life is good for U.S. Army Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix). Or more precisely, as good as it can be, considering that he’s an ex-con, more or less conscripted by the military for service with the 317th Battalion at a base outside Stuttgart in 1989. Bored and cynical, he sells contraband — everything from Mop ‘n’ Glo and cigarettes to heroin and weapons. Observing his fellow soldiers engaged in an indoor football game, he describes them as products of a depleted, post-Vietnam War military, a crew of “prisoners and high school dropouts trained to kill,” unfocused and unhappy. “These were my guys,” Elwood says, with “nothing to kill but time.”
With that, one of his guys reaches for a pass and falls against a table, smashing his skull. As the others argue over the play, Elwood checks the kid’s pulse and finds him dead. Shoot. Though, as Elwood knows, there will be “no hero’s burial” for this “fucked up junkie,” he has to go through the motions, and help the nice-enough but clueless CO, Colonel Berman (Ed Harris), write a letter to the parents. (That Elwood is secretly bedding Berman’s wife [Elizabeth McGovern] isn’t so much cruel or even funny as it is another sign of the lack of interest anyone takes in anything here.) When Elwood observes that the letter’s phrasing sounds excessive, Berman backs off fast: “Scratch ‘resplendent.’ Don’t let that word leave this base!”
Such mordant details help make Buffalo Soldiers a satire in the vein of M*A*S*H*, Dr. Strangelove or Catch-22. Buffalo Soldiers smartly taps into its moment (it ends as the Berlin Wall falls), particularly through David Holmes’ evocative score, and tracks from Public Enemy (“1989!!”), New Order, and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. And, like its precursors, it takes darkly comedic aim at U.S. military bureaucracy and ideological muddles, the endless and appalling ways that plans — grand or lesser — go wrong.
These errors are revealed here to be functions of tedium, the efforts by frustrated human beings to feel something other than oppression and ennui, to feel some sense of self-control, however bogus or fleeting (as Elwood puts it, “War is hell, but peace is fucking boring”). Weary of being told what to think and how to behave at every turn, they rebel in trivial but telling ways, more often than not imitating the very systems they think they’re bucking.
While this insight is not precisely news, it’s worth repeating, perhaps particularly when the military is in very loud self-vaunting mode. That wasn’t the case when the film was first set to be released: its film festival premiere was 7 September 2001. Four days later, Miramax started rescheduling, allegedly looking for a time when Buffalo Soldiers‘ send-up wouldn’t seem so “unpatriotic.” It’s possible that this moment has still not arrived: as ABC News reporter Jeffrey Kofman knows too well, suggesting that the U.S. military is less than committed to its duty every waking minute might get you outed as gay, Canadian, or both.
Still, Buffalo Soldiers makes an often witty, sometimes overkilled case that the military is designed to incite hostilities and rivalries with a series of escalating contests on the U.S. base. Elwood’s arrogant challenges to any visible form of authority are obvious. More subtly, the hierarchy depends on insecurity and Berman and his wife believe that he’ll finally get the promotion he covets if he can: a) impress a General Lancaster (Dean Stockwell) with proof he’s descended from some historical soldier called the Iron Boar, and b) lead his team to a win a military exercise. (No surprise: neither approach works, and, as Elwood perceives, Berman is too decent to succeed in the military.)
Perhaps most striking in this general thematic context is Elwood’s recurring nightmare, in which he’s falling. It’s not just any kind of falling — he falls from a plane, a bomb himself, plummeting toward earth in an all-destructive whoosh, not really meaning to wreak horror and havoc, but, well, that’s what bombs do. It’s not clear that he recognizes his responsibility for any of the chaos he brings, as an individual or as he is affiliated with the U.S. military. But his fear of falling — in whatever metaphorical sense you want to read it — is undeniable.
On this tip, the film reaches back as well, not so much to claim a legacy as to reveal and critique one. On this level, the film is about its title: the original Buffalo Soldiers were black soldiers serving the U.S. Army following the Civil War (many had also served during the War), in a program initiated in 1866. Nicknamed by their ostensible opponents, the Cheyenne and Comanche, these units typically endured the worst possible assignments, as well as prejudice in and out of the military. According to Jordan’s film, the soldiers serving after the Vietnam War were not volunteers in a conventional sense — they were the “dregs” of society, only willing to “enlist” in order to be paroled, from prison or otherwise desperate circumstances of their lives (“Vietnam,” says Elwood, “was the thorn in everybody’s side”).
But Australian director Gregor Jordan (whose Two Hands  is a cleverly put-together neo-noir, starring Bryan Brown and a very young Heath Ledger) has something else in mind, beyond a particular charge against the impracticable structure of the U.S. military. For him, the film (adapted from Robert O’Connor’s novel) offers a broader indictment — of human tendencies to violence, and especially, typical masculine tendencies to aggressive competition. Even during ostensible peacetime (for instance, the Cold War), the film proposes, soldiers look for battles to fight. Young Elwood’s chief adversary turns out to be “one of his own,” the new Top Sergeant, Vietnam War veteran Robert K. Lee (Scott Glenn), who seems willing to undertake any sort of illegal means to stop Elwood’s illegal activities. In other words, their pathologies are well matched.
This dick-measuring contest lurches to other levels with two plot events: first, Elwood and his black market partners, Garcia (Michael Pena) and Stoney (Leon Robinson), come across a cache of weapons. (That is, a tank manned by troops high on heroin drives into downtown service station’s gas tanks, resulting in explosions and wide-ranging disaster, leaving a weapons transport driverless and available for the taking.) This fortuitous find escalates the scale of traffic, as previously, their biggest moneymaker was the heroin they cooked to be distributed by scary MP Saad (Sheik Mahmud-Bey). Of course, such large scale product also steps up the penalties, if they’re busted.
The second turn is only nominally more “personal,” in that Elwood decides to “date” Lee’s daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin), precisely to mess with her father. On hearing this, she rightly concludes, “That’s definitely fucked up!” but kind of likes the idea too, because she hates her dad too. Lee responds to Elwood’s cheek with venom: he attacks Stoney repeatedly (at one point, he asks him, “Aren’t you sick of being fucked by a white man?” Indeed). And, on seeing Robyn emerge from Elwood’s BMW, he hauls the car out to the shooting range the next morning, and has Elwood and his squad fire at it until it collapses in smoke.
Elwood’s dispute with Lee folds into the larger, emblematic media event of the Berlin Wall’s destruction, which is pictured on a television set that’s fallen on its side. As the world around them is changing forever, these soldiers are so wrapped up inside their own narrow visions, their own self-devised struggles, that they can’t see what’s in front of them. In its own time, Buffalo Soldiers exposes how out of sync history and morality can be.