How Sept. 11 changed the way we view military satires like Buffalo Soldiers.

Still from Buffalo Soldiers
Soldiers of unfortunate timing?

Every time an American soldier is gunned down in Iraq, Miramax Films has to wonder if it’s doing the right thing by releasing Buffalo Soldiers. The film, a fiendish satire about brutal U.S. troops stationed in West Germany during the ‘80s, has only the most tenuous connection to the ongoing daily bloodshed in Iraq; it shouldn’t be hard for viewers to distinguish nonfiction from fiction, today’s Middle East from Cold War Europe. But Miramax executives clearly worry that audiences won’t look kindly on a film so jaundiced about military life that by comparison Catch-22 and M*A*S*H look jingoistic. The studio has already postponed the release date five times, surely some kind of box-office record for movie marketing jitters. And it’s gone to great lengths to limit collateral damage with advance publicity; Matthew Hiltzik, vice president of corporate communications for Miramax, has claimed, “This is not an anti-military film.” Last week, Scott Glenn, who plays the sadistic Sgt. Robert E. Lee in the film, conspicuously played up his service as an ex-Marine on several talk shows. 

Four years ago, making a movie based on Robert O’Connor’s novel of  the same name, published to wide acclaim in 1992, was hardly a risky proposition. David O. Russell’s Three Kings, a surprise hit in 1999, portrayed U.S. soldiers in Gulf War I in an unflattering light. And historically, making fun of the military can be profitable. M*A*S*H was Robert Altman’s most successful film, and Dr. Strangelove, the most cynical anti-Pentagon comedy of all time, was a smash in 1964, only two years after the Cuban missile crisis—the jumpiest episode of the Cold War.

Indeed, after shooting on Buffalo Soldiers wrapped in January 2000, the film debuted in 2001 to raves at the Toronto Film Festival. Miramax outbid its rivals for distribution rights and completed the deal—cue ghoulish laugh track—on Sept. 10, 2001. The film has been under a cloud ever since. In October 2002, it had a lukewarm reception in Germany. Screenings in the United States have also been mixed. At Sundance last year (between Postponements 3 and 4) one angry viewer threw a water bottle at the stage where the filmmakers had assembled to answer questions.

So, what to make of Buffalo Soldiers a year and a half into the war on terrorism? The screenplay is true to the bleak, self-satisfied voice of O’Connor’s novel. The cannibalism of American soldiers enisled on foreign soil is one theme of the book, which takes as an epigraph a quote from Nietzsche: “Where there is peace the warlike man attacks himself.” The greatest threat of violence in this man’s Army comes from one’s own countrymen. O’Connor gleefully highlights the nonstop racial warfare, back-stabbing careerism, the cluelessness and ennui of fighting men stewing in a land where they don’t speak the language and don’t really like the people they’ve been enlisted to protect.

In other words, he describes with some accuracy—and much comic hyperbole—the state of mind among many occupying armies throughout history. As ABC’s recent interviews with the 3rd Division proved, resentment against both superiors and subjects has begun to spread among forces in Iraq.

But the most daring part of both book and movie is that the story is narrated by Spc. Ray Elwood, played by Joaquin Phoenix. A drug dealer with a death wish (James Ellroy calls him “Sgt. Bilko on scag”), Elwood is ostensibly a neutral observer scamming his way through the service until he can go home. But his quietly jeering contempt for the Army is bone-deep and his passivity destructive. He cares not at all who gets hurt by his ruses, which are anything but charmingly innocent, like Bilko’s ploys to organize a barrack’s crap game.

In a particularly gruesome scene, two soldiers hauling heavy-duty weapons, including handheld rockets, are killed in an accident caused by a tank crew high on drugs. Elwood happens upon the wreckage while riding with his chums and, eyeing two charred bodies, sees an opportunity. He convinces his reluctant pals to sell the truck’s lethal contents on the black market—and then argues they should trade arms for a monster shipment of heroin, a tip of the hat to rumored Contra deals during the Reagan era.

Hollywood has never been famous for its brave independence from the government in times of war. No anti-Vietnam films appeared during the 10 years when troops were being killed by the thousands in an increasingly unpopular cause. Dissent had to be veiled by changing time and place, to a Mediterranean island in 1944 for Catch-22 and Korea circa 1951 for M*A*S*H.

And so Miramax executives have been in a bind. They couldn’t cut the arms-for-heroin scenes. The plot wouldn’t survive the loss. But neither did they want to write off their investment or their even more valuable reputation as a company willing to take creative risks. The delayed release is yet another sign how nervous our purveyors of culture have become in the surge of nationalism after you-know-when. Last year Miramax even worried about releasing The Quiet American, which dealt with the crimes of the CIA in Indo-China, even though beating up on the intelligence services seems to be a nonpartisan win-win situation.

And Buffalo Soldiers faces a problem The Quiet American never did: Its main character has a death wish and, after 9/11, we don’t. Elwood never faces combat. If he did, the nihilism of the film might not feel so smug and lightweight. The soldiers in Three Kings, who plot to freeboot a shipment of Kuwaiti gold from Iraq, decide to abandon their scheme and aid civilians trapped in a war zone. Black Hawk Down was about a documented military fiasco. But with moral consequences to war (albeit with cartoonish good and bad guys), each film had a dramatic core. Milo Minderbinder, the black-marketer in Catch-22 who will do anything for money, including bomb his own squadron, isn’t the conscience of the story.

The running joke in Buffalo Soldiers is that peacetime service can be as murderous as any battlefield, with firefights erupting on base and grenades exploding in lockers. Nonetheless, looking back at that Cold War world, before stateless religious fanatics threatened to level our cities for the hell (and heaven) of it, it can’t help but seem more benign. Miramax couldn’t have known how abruptly the fearful object of our violent fantasies would change. But the reality of body counts in the age of terrorism has, for now, altered the nature of comedy. Had nukes been dropped and Americans incinerated during the Cuban missile crisis, Dr. Strangelove might not have seemed so funny either. Irony may not have died on 9/11, but corrosively ironic films with smoking corpses of U.S. soldiers and deadly weapons peddled on the black market to shadowy figures are in for a rough time. It may take only another attack on a convoy with a RPG for the makers of Buffalo Soldiers to be decried as “irresponsible.” You can almost hear Elwood’s laugh.