Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Buffalo Soldiers (1997)

It’s one thing to over-simplify historical events for the sake of a “fact-based” movie, but this one crosses the line into total bunk. The portrayal of racial prejudice in the film is no doubt accurate. That’s not the problem. But the screenwriters have used the 10th Cavalry engagement with Apache chief Victorio at Rattlesnake Springs in 1880 to badly misrepresent the brave black men known as Buffalo Soldiers.

Plot. Danny Glover is First Sgt. Washington Wyatt of Company H, first seen patrolling the Mescalero Reservation in search of Victorio and his band of warriors. The Apache leader has been wreaking havoc in New Mexico, West Texas, and Mexico. Glover intercepts three Texas Rangers who have rounded up some Indians and are trying to coerce information from them about Victorio’s whereabouts. One by one, the Rangers have been hanging the children.

NCOs, 9th Cavalry, Ft. Robinson, Nebraska, 18
Glover puts a stop to this and orders half his men to continue the search while he and the rest return to the fort. There they find that a general (Tom Bower) has taken up residence as the commanding officer, with several companies of white troops. Col. Grierson (Bob Gunton), Glover’s CO, is scorned by Bower for his faith in the black troops and the responsibility he has given them.
Bower takes charge of the hunt for Victorio, replacing Grierson with another officer, Captain Calhoun. He heads H troop as they march from the fort, providing backup for the all-white C company. This effort ends in defeat. Calhoun and several of Glover’s men are killed in an ambush, but they manage to capture another Indian leader, Nana.

Back at the fort, Bower faults Glover for not following orders by failing to send reinforcements when requested by Company C. A mixed-blood African American-Seminole scout, John Horse (Carl Lumbly), defends Glover, pointing out that the black troops would never have arrived in time to make a difference.

In another effort, H Company strikes off into the deserts, now under the command of Grierson. The Buffalo Soldiers find Victorio at a place called Rattlesnake Springs, and when that encounter is over, the Apache chief retreats to Mexico, where a short time later, he was taken and killed by federales.

Benjamin Grierson, 1860
History vs. movie. That’s history. Here’s what happens in the movie. On the way to Rattlesnake Springs, Grierson is mortally wounded and turns command of the company over to Glover.

Surrounded by Glover’s men at the springs, Victorio (Harrison Lowe) turns out to be a reasonable man and wants to negotiate. He questions Glover’s allegiance to a race of people who once enslaved him. Glover remains firm. Either Victorio surrenders or he and his band—women and children among them—will be killed.

Guns drawn, Glover’s troops wait for the command to start shooting. But they soften, one of them saying, “We can’t do this.” And they let Victorio go, having decided that they will return to the fort and report, falsely, that the Apaches escaped capture once again. There they are greeted by July Fourth celebrations in progress (Rattlesnake Springs actually occurred on August 6). As they come riding in, they get scattered salutes from the whites who watch them arrive.

Buffalo Soldier, Denver, 1890
Racism. This made-for-TV film wants to show the racism that flourished among the armed forces on the American frontier. It surely does that—and no doubt fairly so. The black soldiers have to give up their barracks when the whites arrive, and there is ample disgust expressed by whites who are revolted by having to assume quarters recently occupied by blacks.

The black troops are required by regulation to follow mounted white troops no closer than 15 yards to the rear. Passing through a settlement, the black soldiers also have to dismount and walk their horses. This, we gather, is not a regulation but simply an arbitrary rule of the whites.

General Pike makes no secret of his contempt for blacks in the military. When Col. Grierson argues that 17 years have shown them to be as competent in uniform as whites, Pike insists that it’s been a “waste of time.”

Victorio, c1875
My beef. A complaint I have about the film is simply that it compromises the integrity of the Buffalo Soldiers. The writers do no service for the record of blacks in the frontier military by having Glover and his men disobey orders and return from Rattlesnake Springs with a false report.

The filmmakers also undermine their own argument against racial inequality by falsifying history itself. Never mind that Victorio was not a Mescalero Indian as the film asserts or that Col. Grierson was some kind of bleeding-heart liberal. (He conducts a little highbrow musicale in the film with a black tenor singing Schubert.) And so what if he was.

Of greater importance is that Col. Grierson was not killed on the way to Rattlesnake Springs. He lived to effectively command his forces there. And an African-American was never handed command of the company for that confrontation.

Buffalo Soldiers, 25th Infantry, Ft. Keogh, Montana, 1890
Character. Danny Glover is fine as Wyatt. Twisted and pushed every which way by both well-meaning and intolerant men, he clings to what he knows, that as an Army man, he has his orders. Nothing else matters.

Even the mixed-race scout questions his loyalty to an Army that has no love for him or his men. “You have no pride,” he says. “What kind of nigger are you?” But the uniform Glover’s character wears, the stripes on his sleeve, and the duties entrusted to him are the only pride he knows, and at least until the end, they are enough.

The screenwriters, however, prevent him from preserving his stature as a soldier. Bumping off Grierson, they put Glover into a false dilemma at the end of the film. At Rattlesnake Springs, they contrive to make him choose between following the orders of black-hating whites and annihilating these nice, friendly Apaches. Thanks to this revisionist baloney, Glover's character loses a good deal of our respect.

Wrapping up. Shot in Benson and Mescal, Arizona, Buffalo Soldiers was a TNT production. It has excellent performances from a supporting cast of black actors. The film is currently available at netflix and amazon. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog.

Further reading:

Photo credits:  
Victorio, Wikipedia
Others, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Jonathan Evison, West of Here


  1. Hollywood has so little respect for accuracy. Even when the real story would trump theirs.

  2. Here's one I actually saw, and liked. Course I like Danny Glover in most anything. Except maybe Predator II

  3. Perhaps a better picture of the Buffalo Soldiers would be in John Ford's SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, starring Woody Stroud as the a black soldier on trial, etc. I enjoyed it alot when I saw it recently but I haven't researched it to see how accurate it is.

  4. SERGEANT RUTLEDGE is classic. I love that film, Walker. Woody Strode is wonderful.

    There was another Buffalo Soldier story done on television years ago starring Sammy Davis Jr. It was part of a sci/fi anthology but damn if I can remember which one. It had an amazing ending and I do remember that Davis was brilliant.

  5. Hollywood is usually tone deaf when it comes to the military.

    (mandatory disclosure; I was a Marine for 21 years).

  6. Agree with Charles. Danny Glover is a fine actor. Thanks, Ron, for reviewing BUFFALO SOLDIERS which I hadn't heard of before. I wonder if filmmakers misrepresent facts, especially in films of historical relevance like this one, because it enhances the appeal of the film on one hand and no one really bothers to question them on the other.

    1. How are a people kept down? ‘Never know' their history.

      "If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."

      Dr. Carter G. Woodson 1875 – 1950

      “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

      Marcus Garvey 1887-1940

      "A tree without roots can bare no fruit, it will die."

      Erich Martin Hicks 1952 - Present

  7. Keep history alive and well by telling that history:

    Read the epic novel, “Rescue at Pine Ridge”, where Buffalo Bill Cody meets a Buffalo Soldier, the greatest epic 'novel’ ever written. A great story of Black Military History, the first generation of Buffalo Soldiers...5 stars Amazon internationally, and Barnes & Noble. The website is; http://www.rescueatpineridge.com Youtube commercials are: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEgEqgNi2Is and

    Rescue at Pine Ridge is the epic story of the 9th Cavalry from its Congressional conception in 1866, to the rescue of the famed 7th Cavalry by the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, 1890. The 7th Cavalry was entrapped again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of occurred, a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry. This story is about, brutality, compassion, reprisal, bravery, heroism and gallantry.

    I know you’ll enjoy the novel. I wrote the story that embodied the Native Americans, Outlaws and African-American/Black Soldiers, from the east to the west, from the south to the north, in the days of the Native American Wars with the approaching United States of America.

    The novel was taken from my mini-series movie with the same title, “RaPR” to keep the story alive. The movie so far has the interest of major actors in which we are in talks with, in starring in this epic American story.

    When you get a chance, also please visit our Alpha Wolf Production website at; http://www.alphawolfprods.com and see our other productions, like Stagecoach Mary, the first Black Woman to deliver mail for the United States Postal System in Montana, in the 1890's, “spread the word”.