How The Post-9/11 Climate Helped Turn The Satirical 'Buffalo Soldiers' Into A Flop

Promotional poster from Miramax for "Buffalo Soldiers." Fair use included for purposes of commentary.

[Editor's Note: This is the second in The Dissenter's weekly series on 9/11 and its impact on cinema, which will be published as a companion to our series, "Twenty Years In A Security State."]

“After September 11, 2001, as American soldiers went into battle in Afghanistan and then Iraq, it must have been hard to imagine the public embracing a scabrous anti-military satire,” New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote in his review of “Buffalo Soldiers.”

The film was released on July 25, 2003, after distribution was postponed four times by Miramax following the September 11th attacks.

“Buffalo Soldiers” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9, 2001. It starred Joaquin Phoenix, Anna Paquin, and Ed Harris. It was Australian director Gregor Jordan’s second film. It had an estimated $15 million budget and barely grossed $2 million worldwide, making it a flop.

It was an adaptation of Robert O’Connor’s 1993 novel on the U.S. Army when hundreds of thousands of troops were stationed in West Germany, just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Scott’s deduction reflected the conformity that marked the years immediately following 9/11. “With United States forces still very much in harm’s way in Iraq, now might not be such a great time either,” he added.

Media coverage of the release naturally focused on the delay of the release, but it also fueled a backlash against the film for presenting a “war is hell” narrative.

Ray Elwood (Phoenix) is a battalion clerk at the Theodore Roosevelt U.S. Army Base in Stuttgart, West Germany in October 1989. He was caught stealing a car, and the judge gave him an option: go to prison for six months or join the Army for three years. He made the “mistake” of joining the Army.

“Peace is fucking boring,” Elwood declares. He deals heroin, and when he has an opportunity to go to the next level and sell a cache of US weapons for money, he pursues a deal.

Meanwhile, after Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn), a psychopathic Vietnam War veteran, assumes command as the battalion’s top sergeant, he becomes Elwood’s worst enemy. Lee ends the cushy life Elwood has created for himself. Elwood responds by pursuing a romance with Lee’s daughter, Robyn (Anna Paquin).

The satire in the film is not as sharp as the novel. For one, Jordan stays away from the gleeful racism of troops.

Jordan told the Sunday Tribune in Australia, “There's a scene where a tank with a crew high on drugs goes berserk, running over a VW Beetle. In real-life, the occupants of the car didn't get out alive. But it would have been too nasty to have shown that.”

Elwood was altered to make him less mean. He was a heroin addict in the book and does not behave like a junkie in the film. He gets Robyn hooked on heroin in the novel but not in the film.

However, the film does capture the disconnect between generals and lower-ranking soldiers, who came from poverty and could care less about the mission.

The tagline of the film, “Steal all that you can steal, was a twist on the Army’s “Be All That You Can Be” slogan. Media attention to the tagline incited outrage.

According to Chicago Tribune movie reporter Mark Caro, complaints were submitted to Miramax and Disney about the film’s poster, which showed “Phoenix in combat fatigues and a loose ammo belt flashing a peace sign in front of an American flag in which the stars [were] replaced by dollar bills.”

Paquin was “struck on the head during a screening at the Sundance Film Festival when a woman in the audience threw a full water bottle at the screen, shouting that the movie was anti-American and anti-Army,” the Sunday Tribune recalled.

Miramax bent over backwards in its effort to convince the public the film was not anti-military nor was it commenting on either of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. “It's a black comedy, and we didn't want it to be perceived as a commentary on the world in terms of going to war. It's not about our current troops that are fighting,” Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands stated.

The cast and crew of “Buffalo Soldiers” followed Miramax’s marching orders and submitted to the toxic climate. Phoenix said on ABC’s “Good Morning America, “I think people are missing the fact that it's, it's, it's not really about our situation right now and the war. It was set in 1989, the fall of the Berlin wall, it was a different military.”

"I never meant to make a movie that was subversive,” Jordan told the Sunday Tribune. "To me, the movie is not necessarily even political. It's about the idea that there are warlike people out there who like war and want war. And if there's not a war, they'll go out and create one.”

“You could tell the same sort of story set in a British Army base in peacetime, or a Russian base, or an Australian base. The type of thing that goes on is not necessarily unique to Americans.”

Paquin slightly diverged from Jordan and Phoenix, “It's not an attack on the American military, but we shouldn't cover up for them either."

The cast and crew's defense did little to persuade moviegoers the media's perception of the film was unfair. And, in retrospect, their comments make it difficult to champion "Buffalo Soldiers" as a piece of art that defied the jingoism of the post-9/11 era.

Jordan once told reporters his favorite film was the Stanley Kubrick classic “Dr. Strangelove,” and his favorite book was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

“I never really thought about it, but both of them happen to be set in the military. I guess that style of humor and satirizing something as formidable and as terrifying as a huge military force was to me always quite appealing,” Jordan said while promoting “Buffalo Soldiers.”

Which makes Jordan's meek response to the backlash against his film even more disappointing.

Caro actually asked Larry Gelbart, who created the “M*A*S*H” television series in the 1970s, what he thought of “Buffalo Soldiers.”

"This is probably not the best time to be kidding the military because it's generally considered they're doing a great job," said Gelbart, who hadn't seen the movie. "The army is not sitting around with time on its hands. The dance card is very full. We have troubles in a great number of places, so the notion that the army is goofing off and dealing on the black market would be a hard sell.”

At the time that Gelbert shared his opinion, the world had recently witnessed massive protests in and outside of the United States by millions opposed to invading Iraq. President George W. Bush had given his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, but the war was far from over. Any film or TV that satirized Iraq would have served the public interest.

Journalist Matt Kennard authored a book published in 2012 called Irregular Army: How the U.S. Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror. It highlighted the relaxed standards that made it easier for the government to find soldiers for their wars.

In 2002, federal regulations said individuals require a misdemeanor waiver if arrested, cited, charged, or held and allowed to plead guilty to a lesser offense or to plead guilty to criminal possession of stolen property (value $100 or less). An arrest or questioning with no preferral of charges does not require a waiver.”

“When charges are dismissed without determination of guilt no waiver is required. A waiver is not authorized if a criminal or juvenile court charge is pending or if such a charge was dismissed or dropped at any stage of the court proceedings on condition that the offender enlist in a military service.”

Screen shot from the promotional trailer for "Buffalo Soldiers." Fair use as it is included for the purposes of commentary.

Elwood says in the opening credits, “Vietnam was the thorn in everybody’s side. They stopped the draft and asked for volunteers. Except nobody volunteered. I mean, who wants to play for a losing team? So where do you go to find the new patriots? Answer: prison.”

“Take convicted felons and give them a choice. Serve time or serve your country.”

The filmmakers may not have created “Buffalo Soldiers” to comment on the volunteer army deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, but that does not mean aspects of the story do not resonate in 2021.

If anything makes viewing the film worthwhile, it is that the war profiteering in Iraq and Afghanistan is well-documented. It is not far off from the black market activity in the story.

The opium trade was not revived in Afghanistan without U.S. personnel either in the military or CIA getting a piece of the action. High-ranking officers and their partners at military contractors also made out like bandits.

Of course, viewers can see why private first class soldiers would want in on the enterprise as well.