Saturday, August 3, 2013

Soldier Blue (1970)

          Nineteen-seventy was a wild year for Hollywood movies about the Native American experience, even if most of the stories Hollywood generated were told through the prism of white people assimilating into Indian culture. The best of the 1970 batch is undoubtedly Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman, although A Man Called Horse, with Richard Harris, has noteworthy virtues, as well. And then there’s Soldier Blue, which is in odd hybrid of bleeding-heart liberalism, culture-clash comedy, gut-wrenching violence, and Vietnam allegory. The movie’s a mess, but it’s strangely compelling and undeniably memorable, if for no other reason than how well it captures the anguished spirit of the historical moment in which it was created. Based on a novel by Theodore V. Olsen (which was originally titled Arrow in the Sun), the movie is set in the American West during the Civil War and revolves around two white characters with opposing views on Indians. Thrown together by circumstance, they bicker until arriving at an understanding, only to stumble into a horrific slaughter by U.S. soldiers of an entire Cheyenne village.
          Although the film’s bloody climax is based on a real historical incident from the time of the Indian Wars—the infamous Sand Creek massacre—the filmmakers’ thematic and visual parallels to the 1968 My Lai atrocity in Vietnam are unmistakable. So, in a weird way, the Native Americans supposedly at the heart of Soldier Blue are doubly marginalized—not only are Caucasians the leading characters, Indians are used as an all-purpose metaphor representing oppressed indigenous people everywhere. Still, iffy politics are the least of Soldier Blue’s problems from a cinematic perspective, because the film wobbles between sitcom-style banter and ugly scenes of murder and rape. Nearly everything in the movie is highly watchable for some reason or another, but Soldier Blue feels like several films cobbled together into one sloppy whole.
          The picture begins when Cheyenne warriors attack a group of civilians and soldiers. Only Cresta (Candice Bergen) and Honus (Peter Strauss) survive. She’s a white woman who has been held captive by Indians for a long period of time and has unexpectedly developed sympathy for their plight, whereas he’s a straight-line military man with ignorantly racist attitudes. The duo travels through a remote wilderness, arguing their way to mutual attraction while surviving near-death experiences as well as encounters with weird frontier characters. (Reliably odd character actor Donald Pleasence plays one of these folks.) Eventually, Cresta and Honus reach a military fort, where Cresta becomes permanently disillusioned with white culture—the soldier to whom she’s engaged reveals his plans to annihilate the village where she was held.
          The heroes try to prevent mass bloodshed, to no avail, so director Ralph Nelson unleashes an incendiary barrage for the movie’s big finish—the raid on the Indian village is filled with graphic violence and intense rape scenes as nature-loving Indians fall victim to monstrous whites. All of this is exactly as heavy-handed as it sounds, even if the underlying message is historically valid. Viewed as a piece of dramatic art, Soldier Blue is a train wreck. But viewed as a window into the concerns of its time, Soldier Blue gains a measure of twisted relevance.

Solider Blue: FREAKY


JKruppa said...

I agree that it's a train wreck, but I couldn't recommend anyone see it just for it's (dubious) historical value. It feels like an episode of Little House on the Prairie with pretensions well beyond its reach, and the supposedly violent episodes are handled so clumsily that they're embarrassing rather than shocking.

D said...

I remember that the film attempted to court controvery with the ad campaign you've pictured as well as one with a photo of Candice Bergen standing in the midst of an attack. I don't remember the ad line for the second campaign but it was along the lines of : "The most shocking and important film of the year!" I remember seeing it and thinking that the slaughter at the end was a cynical followup to "The Wild Bunch" finale.