DVD: Soldier Blue (1970)

June 14, 2016 | By

SoldierBlueFilm:  Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label: Lionsgate

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  December 12, 2006

Genre:  Western / War

Synopsis: The brutal Sand Creek massacre of 1864 forms a parable for the Vietnam War in this violent cult classic in which a soldier and a young woman flee from Cheyenne warriors and head for the safety of a far-off fort.

Special Features:  (none)






Prior to directing feature films, Ralph Nelson had been a prolific director of episodic TV, tackling live dramatic teleplays (Studio One, Climax) as well as more atypical TV fare, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Cinderella (1957) with Julie Andrews. He seemed the natural choice to helm a film version of Rod Serling’s classic and award-winning teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), after which came Lilies of the Field (1963) in which he directed Sidney Poitier to win a Best Actor Oscar.

His later films were rather eclectic – the procedural plane crash drama Fate is the Hunter (1964), the high concept Cary Grant comedy Father Goose (1964), and Charly (1968), the classic, no nonsense adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon.”

Nelson also reteamed with Poitier in the offbeat western Duel at Diablo (1966), unique for its top-heavy stars as well as a mean streak and little bursts of graphic violence – the latter elements which perhaps attracted him to filming Theodore V. Olsen’s novel “Arrow in the Sun,” with a script by Fate writer and author John Gay.

Soldier was reportedly advertised as a glaring anti-war statement / Vietnam War parable, and there are chunks of dialogue that slam the U.S. Government for being hypocritical in professing fairness, civility, and moderation while hate for another culture is swirling around like vicious dust devils. It’s also a film that’s known for a graphic finale that earned it both high box office revenues for executive produce / exploitationeer Joseph E. Levine and heavy criticism, making it a cult film whose core story became overshadowed by its mystique.

If Gay’s script follows the novel’s characters and plotting closely, then Olsen’s novel was one weird little work, because Soldier is part anti-war screed, a youth buddy road movie, a western, and a Fulcian gorefest that’s sure to baffle contemporary audiences. Ostensibly a dramatization of the repugnant 1864 Sand Creek massacre in which a Colorado Territory Militia lay to waste a peaceful Cheyenne encampment, the story unfolds through the experiences of soldier Honus Gent (gawky Peter Strauss), lone army survivor of a prior mini-massacre in which his Captain (Dana Elcar), Sergeant (Mort Mills), and entire troop were wiped out by Cheyenne dog soldiers wanting paymaster funds to buy guns for further raids and anti-government challenges.

Honus’ flight is enhanced by Cresta Lee (swaggering and bravado-laden Bergen), a pretty blonde snatched two years prior by the Cheyenne while en route to marry her military fiancé (Bob Carraway). Honus and Cresta make their trek back to the nearest fort where, coincidentally, her fiancée still resides. During their journey they encounter both natural and human threats, ranging from bad weather, personal injuries, would- be rapists, and a gunrunner (played by Donald Pleasance in one of his best supporting roles; eccentric, funny, and dangerous while sporting terrible teeth).

Being the former wife of a Cheyenne chief, Cresta is savvy to surviving in the elements, and often saves Honus’ dignity and hide, and for a good hour Soldier is a wacky youth romp through the rough hills of Colorado. The pair are de facto young adults snickering and (in Cresta’s case) swearing at every turn, exploiting their emotions with broad gestures akin to a TV sitcom, but things get a bit more serious when Honus realizes Cresta’s sympathies lie with the Cheyenne, who in her eyes, deserve the illegal guns for self defense even though the same variety were used to massacre Honus’ troop.

Gay’s script uses the Honus-Cresta sorta-romance as markers for audiences to follow before plunging them into the historical finale, and trace the parallels between bad domestic policies of 1864 and bad foreign policies of the late 1960s-early 1970s, so there’s no doubt Soldier was designed to draw in younger cinemagoers by making a 100 year old massacre relevant. The ploy does work, but in a very obvious, hectoring manner, which makes this moral screed very dated, and yet it is a fascinating time capsule of how filmmakers were trying to ease in political commentary in supposedly generic genre efforts.

Nelson’s approach differs significantly because while the visuals and production details – period décor, costumes, locations, and slick direction – are wholly rooted in the western genre, the humour and performances are 1970, and not unlike the poppish score Neal Hefti applied to Diablo, Roy Budd’s music is rarely formal classical; it’s an up-tempo approach beginning with a Main Title lament composed and performed by Canada’s Buffy St. Marie, and action cues that blend orchestra, bossa nova, and jazz in certain spots.

Budd’s score works – he makes some (presumably) deliberate homages to Jerry Fielding’s action material from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) theme, and alluding to Ennio Morricone’s Sergio Leone scores (plus a striking orchestra track featuring a female voice doing a good Edda Dell’Orso solo) – but being his first film score, it also shows some inexperience in diversifying the content of singular cues; in several pieces Budd just loops sections until there’s a slight change in action or character direction, rather than commenting on the progression of either / both components.


Soldier Blue One Sheet



The film’s tonal shift at the end was certainly splayed out in the poster campaign:  “The Most Savage Film in History” reads like teaser text from a Mondo Cane variant, while “Stained with the Blood of the Innocent” is just slightly more restrained. Some theatre posters proclaimed audience lockout policies once the film had begun “due to the controversial and devastating nature” of the finale, a bit of Hitchockian showmanship perhaps, to create a sense of mystery and severity as was done to latecomers of Psycho in 1960.




The poster art had a highly effective graphic of a naked squatting Cheyenne woman seen from behind with her hands bound by thick rope, observing in silence as Colonel Iverson and his troops march for blood in the far horizon like a row of barbed wire. (Variants for more sensitive territories and / or prudish exhibitors afraid of bare bums had the figure wearing a skirt.)

The film’s shift towards moral outrage and visceral horror is gradual, but once the massacre begins, it’s a gory show that may not necessarily revolt contemporary audiences, but the very execution of such violence by a Hollywood director alone is unique.

Where Peckinpah’s mantra to Hollywood conventionalism was ‘Fuck it,’ and his blood-letting style of slo-mo bullet piercings and throat slittings has become conventional, Nelson went for prosthetics and props, and in one case, eye trauma worthy of a Lucio Fulci shocker (if not his own westerns, like Four of the Apocalypse). In Nelson’s epic portrait of mayhem, a child has his eye blown out from a rear headshot, a woman has her breast sliced off, limbs are severed, a child is decapitated, and in the ra-ra finale where Iverson (fine character actor John Anderson) addresses his victorious murderers for a job well done, human heads are clearly seen piked atop saluting spears.

Soldier was rated R, and there’s no doubt the film was trimmed to make that rating, but it also addresses the issue of how faithful should a film be to a horrific event in military history. Not unlike Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan (1998), Nelson went beyond his studio contemporaries and avoided relying exclusively on visual clichés like reaction shots, shots of spilled or sprayed blood, and brief glimpses of gore, but where Spielberg showed Allied soldiers being blown apart by unseen Nazis, Nelson shows the Cheyenne being hacked apart by militiamen with barbaric glee.

Soldier is a schizophrenic film, opening with humour, a mini-slaughter, a badlands survival romp, a near-death encounter with a mountain weirdo (the gunrunner), and after an overnight romance, a graphic bloodfest. Gay’s dialogue – whether original or lifted from the novel – never finds a balance between the tonal differences within the film’s narrative, and buddy characters Honus and Cresta always feel fake; the performances are too broad and jokey, the dialogue shrill and whiny.

To add to the film’s wonkiness, rather than end on one final emotional beat, Nelson opts for a handful: after the piked head assembly, Honus finds Cresta weeping by a pit of butchered women and children, and is asked to ‘say a poem.’ He’s then seen chained alongside another rebellious soldier to the rear of a wagon, and as the troop heads home to base, Honus and Cresta exchange almost comical smiles and winks, like ‘Everything’s gonna be fine!’ and ‘I’ll see ya back at the fort!’

Underscoring this oddness is Budd’s up-tempo End Credit music that’s more pop-based, and a bizarre musical statement to the lengthy bloodbath and anti-war screaming we’ve just seen; it’s slightly evocative of Mike Curb’s awful pop music for the credits in 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes (a film also produced by Soldier’s Gabriel Katzka), but more jarring, because Budd’s musical wrap-up adds to the film’s sad / happy / sad / playful / life’s shit emotional closure. If audiences at the film’s test screenings weren’t unnerved by the gore, they must have been a little befuddled by the tonal weirdness that caps an already strange film.

Soldier’s never been given it’s due as an anti-war artifact nor where it sits within the western genre or Nelson’s own filmography, perhaps because it’s been reduced to a cult oddity that wasn’t easily screened on TV. Although it did receive an uncut release on DVD, a few shots are heavily compressed on the single layer disc, plus it seems to have been sourced from a PAL master, making the actor movements a little jerky.

Either way Soldier’s in need of a home video redo, if not a special edition that contextualizes a production that reportedly did great business sin Europe, but underperformed in the U.S. for obvious reasons.

Although Ralph Nelson made several more films into the decade before a return to TV movies, the material wasn’t as memorable as his sixties classics, and in the case of Embryo (1976), he reformulated a half-assed story from the better, more affecting Charly.

Co-star Peter Strauss had previously made his film debut alongside Michael Douglas in the anti-war drama Hail, Hero! (1969), but he found greater success in TV, hitting pay-dirt in the epic Emmy Award-winning Rich Man, Poor Man (1976-1977). Bergen, whose role in Soldier is pivotal to the drama (and teasing audiences with an increasingly shredded dress), fared much better in the underrated gem Bite the Bullet (1975), and ably blended comedy and drama in the Emmy-winning series Murphy Brown (1988-1998).



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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