Sunday, June 30, 2013


When HBO came to our neighborhood my parents, who had sprung for cable, chose not to pick up the new movie channel. I had friends whose families did get HBO, and I would watch movies with them whenever I got the chance. I was about ten years old when I first saw Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue. We were just kids, so we were really just interested in the famous massacre scene at the end of the picture. You didn't see that level of violence and gore on TV back then, and it was a kind of revelation, if not a rite of passage, to see it in someone's living room. What happened to the Indians was awful in both senses of the word -- deplorable yet kind of awesome. Watching it again this past week, I realized that I remembered little about specific acts of violence. Soldier Blue's violence had become something abstract in my memory. The film had become less about a crime perpetrated against Native Americans and more a film about violence, one in which violence became an end unto itself. In retrospect, that's the problem with it.

Before adapting Theodore V. Olsen's novel Arrows in the Sun, writer John Gay had scripted the comedy western The Hallelujah Trail, while director Ralph Nelson had helmed the western drama Duel at Diablo. Nelson, at least, had established his credentials as a wrangler of sweeping outdoor action. Neither he nor Gay seemed from prior work like the sorts to make a revisionist western, yet Soldier Blue is nothing if not that. It is revisionist in content if not in form, retaining the classic sweep and widescreen framing of earlier westerns while subverting earlier archetypes and blatantly inviting comparisons with the massacres of the Vietnam War. Nelson and cinematographer Robert B. Hauser give the film an epic look and clearly had plenty of money to spend, but may have risked charges of anti-Americanism by portraying the U.S. Cavalry as blatant murderers of peaceful natives.

The story starts from the opposite end conceptually, with Pvt. Honus Gent (Peter Strauss) barely surviving the massacre of his cavalry unit by Cheyenne warriors. His unit was escorting a rescued captive, Cresta Lee (Candice Bergen) to her fiancee, also a cavalryman. During the bloody battle -- it opens with Honus's buddy catching a bullet in the face -- Cresta manages to rescue herself. The first genre reversal of the picture is Cresta's role as the experienced wilderness survivor in place of the typical older, stronger male. She'd been taken by the Cheyenne two years earlier and was with them long enough to learn more woodcraft than the rookie Honus has. Her personality is defined by her city background. New York is where she got her filthy mouth and her feisty no-nonsense attitude, qualities that seem anachronistic in the setting but are meant to make her the audience-identification figure in 1970. Despite her technical captivity, Cresta embodies an alternative synthesis of urban modernity and native wisdom, refusing the alternative frontier attitude of conflict and conquest. She never truly goes native -- she tells Honus that she's not a Cheyenne and never will be -- but she identifies with them more than with the soldiers she's stuck with in more than one sense.

With Cresta as his guide, Honus has a consciousness-raising journey back to the army. Initially inclined to think of Cresta as a traitor and a tramp, he gradually gives in to what we're meant to see, looking past Candice Bergen's abrasively one-note performance, as the young woman's natural charm. They see the worst of red and white, Honus being forced to fight a brave to the death for a lost sock, then teaming with Cresta to thwart a peddler (Donald Pleasance) selling rifles to the Indians. Having stopped him, our heroes think they've prevented a war, but gloryhound Col. Iverson (veteran western character actor John Anderson) has different ideas. Seeing his army massing for an attack, Cresta runs to the Cheyenne to warn them to flee, but while a handful foolishly want to fight back, her onetime husband Chief Spotted Wolf (Jorge Riviero) more foolishly thinks that his gifts from the U.S. government -- a flag, a medal -- will convince Iverson of his peaceful intentions.


The infamous massacre, based on the Sand Creek slaughter of 1864, ensues. Nelson clearly feels licensed by the success of The Wild Bunch to escalate the violence to levels he would not have dared imagine at the time of Duel at Diablo, just four years earlier. It's a make-or-break moment for the film, if audiences haven't already been turned off by the braying Bergen or the whiny Strauss, who looks and sounds sort of like a Rankin-Bass puppet. Seeing it with somewhat more mature eyes, I think I understand that what I got a kick from long ago hurts the scene and the movie. The main problem with the massacre scene is that Nelson punctuates it with special effects that reduce the moral horror he hoped to evoke into simple spectacle. An Indian boy gets a bullet through his face the way the cavalry guy did at the start of the picture. Blood flies everywhere. In the most blatant example, Nelson zooms in on an isolated woman screaming as a soldier charges with his sabre. In the next shot, the soldier decapitates a dummy. This is not something you do if you want to focus the audience's moral attention on the terror inflicted on the Cheyenne.


The decapitation is an effect, an end unto itself as in horror movies -- but recall that horror movies may horrify but generally don't provoke the sort of moral outrage Nelson and Guy were aiming for. If they do, the outrage is directed at the film itself, just as it was directed against Soldier Blue, more often than it's directed at the fictional characters perpetrating the atrocity. In the very same year, Arthur Penn directed a massacre of Indians in Little Big Man that, in my memory at least, was less concerned with extreme effects yet more effective in its similar revisionist purpose despite leavening it with the humor of Chief Dan George imagining himself invisible. Nelson was trying to do too much, merging the revisionist politics of the era (though sympathy for the Indians goes back to silent movie days) with the revisionist violence of Peckinpah and the spaghetti westerns. Worse, perhaps, he may have used revisionist elements without really having any revisionist sensibility of his own, turning Soldier Blue into a kind of exploitation piece. Above all, Soldier Blue is a revisionist western with Hollywood production values. I'm sure it was meant that way, to be more jarring at its climax, but the effect is somewhat too jarring for the good of the film and its message. This is one of those revisionist westerns that hasn't aged well and will probably endure best as a period piece, an artifact of 1970 rather than a portrait of the Old West.


venoms5 said...

There's a great book on the making of the film, Sam. It's rather expensive, but worth it in my opinion. The film was originally far more gruesome, according to Nelson. He states he cut a lot of the finale himself, feeling it was too offensive. The cut footage is described in the book, and there's a photo of the cut scene of Spotted Wolf's head being hoisted into the air among other things.

Sam Juliano said...

I have not seen this film, but found myself enthralled with your review, Samuel. Too bad the veracity of the bloodletting detracted from the far more vital moral issues that should be the focus of this picture. Sight unseen I would have to agree still with you on your speculation that the director couldn't portray the cavalry as murderers. This certainly isn't the first time a film has cowered away from that perception.

Excellent review as always.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, I'm sure Nelson must have felt his was a careful balancing act, as it often is when you try to portray real horror with the tools of horror cinema. We probably understand that better now than anyone did 40 years ago and Nelson may not have realized how he was undermining his message. That book would probably be very interesting for more than its discussion of violence, though.

Sam, there's no ambiguity about the cavalry being murderers in Soldier Blue, but the problem was the way the cinematic violence called attention to itself rather than the historical injustice it illustrated.

eddie lydecker said...

I disagree, the massacre scene at the end (in its complete and uncut form) still packs an incredible punch (even to this day) and is without question the fulcrum of the movie.

venoms5 said...

In all fairness, there is no true uncut version. The only people who ever saw the full unabridged finale were those in screenings prior to its theatrical release.

The director did say in interviews that he intended the finale to be jarring. He wanted it to be a shock to the audience who weren't expecting it. An Indian friend of mine told me it was accurate for what was shown.

It's not elaborated on in the movie, from what I recall, but the massacre was apparently revenge for past Indian attacks with one of the most severe being the Hungate Family massacre from the same year.

I assume the book is still in print, Sam. I paid $50 for it new. Steep, yes, but it's exhaustive in its detail.

Samuel Wilson said...

eddie, I don't dispute that the massacre packs a punch, but I suppose the question is where it lands. The point where significant violence crosses the line into exploitative gore may be a matter of subjective perception, however.

venom, the big massacre is bracketed at the opposite end of the film from the initial massacre of Honus's cavalry unit, and Nelson stages the shots of Honus and Cresta looking down on both scenes as if to mirror each other. Meanwhile, Col. Iverson rallies the troops to punish the Indians for various atrocities actually or allegedly committed. Told from a different angle the film might simply portray a cycle of reprisal but Soldier Blue itself sides with Cresta's belief that the whites started it all and set all the examples, and it definitely portrays the massacre of Indians (including women and children, some of the women raped as well)as on another, worse level than the killing of soldiers.

Anonymous said...

"Some" White people, are always in DENIAL about how they (the cowardly white ancestors) took what was NOT THEIRS IN THE FIRST PLACE! its a reminder of how DISHONORABLE and DISCRIMINATIVE and RACIST the so called Government was then, a very cowardly and Dishonorable way to make something that never belonged to them in the beginning anyway! And then today call this land theirs.... so unjustified and WRONG!!! Whom ever gets offended is just PURE IGNORANT! Id Love to read someone write something "HONEST AND BRAVE ABOUT THE WRONG DOING THAT went on 300 years ago, that to me would show HONOR!
~Just one Honest opinion~

Anonymous said...

The Indians slaughtered at Sand Creek had nothing to do with the massacre of the Hungate
family; Chivington (Iverson in the movie) was running for political office and needed an
"easy" victory, and Black Kettle's band of Cheyennes were convenient.There was no firefight
before the massacre as was shown in the movie; there was some fighting in the creek bed
and Chivingtons troops did suffer a number of casualties (24 killed and 52 wounded as
opposed to 184 Indians--137 Cheyennes and 47 Arapahos), but many of his casualties were
caused by "friendly fire". A few women and children were taken prisoner but the only
reason they were spared was that they were married to white men, or in the case of the
children,were the product of such unions. Four years later the survivors of Sand Creek
were attacked a second time; this time by Custer and the 7th Cavalry. Unlike Chivington,
Custer had no idea who he was attacking; his orders said there was a hostile band of
Indians in the area--there was, and they were camped only a few miles away. Custer
simply mistook Black Kettle's band for the hostiles he was looking for. In this second
attack 41 Indians--38 Cheyennes, 2 Arapahos and 1 Sioux were killed--But 53 were taken
prisoner to serve as bargaining chips in negotiations ("You won't get your people back
until you agree to the following concessions...") with the Cheyennes. Custer's losses
were 21 killed and 14 wounded.