Soldier Blue

cast: Peter Strauss, Candice Bergen, Donald Pleasence, Bob Carraway, and Dana Elcar

director: Ralph Nelson

109 minutes (15) 1970
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Steven Hampton

I’d forgotten how good this was. It’s an unusual mix of tragedy, extreme violence and comedy-romance that divided audiences and the critics. In the wake of The Wild Bunch, Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue was released in the very same year as comparable maverick-auteur classics M*A*S*H and Catch-22.

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It was denounced as just another example of pretentious, politically-aware twaddle by some, but praised by others for its bravery in taking a determined left wing stance against the sickeningly amoral violence of US foreign policy. In fact, today as then, this nearly 25-year-old movie is one that seems designed to split middle class viewers’ opinions.

Based on the book Arrow In The Sun by Theodore V. Olsen, which partly concerns the real life historical horror of a Cheyenne tribe massacred by US cavalry at Sand Creek in 1864, the film shows us, in unflinchingly graphic and frequently close-up detail, just how unglamorous and utterly pointless killing people really is. There’s almost no attempt to disguise this anti-racist slice of give-peace-a-chance propaganda as anything but a straight ‘message movie’, and it was made to present a commentary upon injustices of the Vietnam War.

A paymaster’s detachment of US cavalry are attacked and slaughtered by indians, leaving only two survivors: an officer’s fiancée Cresta Lee (the beautiful Candice Bergen giving her breakthrough performance), and honest but naïve cavalryman Honus Grant (Peter Strauss). Together, they must trek through the wilderness of indian country to reach the relative safety of the nearest fort. Along the way they, naturally, fall in love. Having been ‘married’ to indian chief Spotted Wolf, heroine Cresta is feisty as hell and her liberal minded, yet resolutely grouchy, speeches are coloured with the non-nonsense attitudes of a modern woman, who’s socially at least a century ahead of her time. Nevertheless, despite her obvious feminist leanings, when our travelling couple are taken captive by a roguish gun-runner (Donald Pleasence), we still get an eyeful of Ms Bergen’s naked bum, which chivalrous Honus ‘soldier blue’ Grant repeatedly fails to keep covered by Cresta’s handmade dress while he struggles, manfully, to chew his way through the ropes binding her wrists behind her back.

The high camp role-reversal (she’s the toughie, he’s the simpering wreck) of the burgeoning romance between Cresta and Grant is only one part of the movie, and it softens viewers up for the later, sheer bloody viciousness of a climactic slaughter. Like Grant, we are appalled at the illegal action of the soldiers as they brutally rape, mutilate, stab, decapitate, and shoot the women and children of an indian village, before burning it to the ground. The historical events enacted in Soldier Blue have long since been rightly described as one of the darkest episodes in American history. As a prime example of art reflecting the cyclic nature of the historical record this film has few equals.

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