The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Buffalo Soldiers

One of the most interesting stories to come out of the settling of the American west is that of the Buffalo Soldiers, two cavalry and two infantry regiments that served as an integral part of the Indian Wars. The regiments of African-American soldiers don't always get their due in American history. Where 1989's Glory told the story of the 54th Massachusetts in the Civil War, here we are with a story about the 10th Cavalry, 1997's TV movie Buffalo Soldiers.

It's 1880 in the Arizona territory with the 10th Cavalry, a regiment of black soldiers, stationed at Fort Clark. Among the cavalry regiment is H Troop with First Sergeant Washington Wyatt (Danny Glover) in command after the company commander is killed. Longtime veterans who have served in the American southwest for years, H Troop is full of capable soldiers who have battled Sioux to Comanches to now, the Apaches. Signs point to two warring Apache tribes joining up to wreak havoc across the territory, killing, pillaging and burning everything in their path. Tasked with preventing the link-up, Wyatt, H Troop and the 10th as a whole find themselves in a stickier situation when a new officer, General Pike (Tom Bower), arrives at Fort Clark, readily admitting he questions the abilities of these Buffalo soldiers. 

Way back in the 1990s, the cable channel TNT wasn't just about regurgitating major network TV shows and Hollywood blockbusters 24-7. One of the best parts of the network was their creation of a variety of made-for-TV movies, many of them focusing on the American west and biblical quasi-epics. I grew up watching them so it's cool now most of 15-20 years later to catch up with them. Check out many of them HERE. The scale is limited, but the quality from the acting and cast to the action is story is almost there...just don't expect $100 million gargantuan epics. This historically based western from director Charles Haid certainly qualifies, telling a relatively little-known story about the American west.

If you've seen 1989's Glory, a classic about the formation of the first all-black regiment in the Civil War, you have an idea of what you're getting into here. Even though the U.S. government backed the formation of black regiments -- both cavalry and infantry -- they weren't always supported whether it be from the government that formed them, the high-ranking army officers who commanded them, or the settlers and townspeople that depended on their protection. We see that in the new commanding officer, the doubting General Pike, his right-hand, prejudiced/racist Major Carr (Timothy Busfield), but also the other side, the supportive side in the 10th's commander, Colonel Grierson (Bob Gunton), and one of his company commanders, Captain Calhoun (Matt Ross). The conversations can be tough at times -- a multitude of uses of the 'N-word' -- but the reality of the history is there all over.

Our focus mostly is on Glover's Sergeant Washington Wyatt, a former slave from Mississippi who joined the army, has been there for years and climbed through the ranks. Now as a first sergeant in the 10th, he's respected by his men and for the most part, his superiors. Glover does a fine job with his performance, an incredibly capable soldier who is nonetheless limited by perceptions, regulations and in some cases, ignorance from those in command. We see those struggles, Wyatt instead trying to focus on doing his job and getting his men through as many scrapes as they can untouched. There's a cool dynamic with Pike's scout, John Horse (Carl Lumbly), a half-Seminole, half-black man who's also an expert scout. John questions what drives Wyatt, what pushes him to do what he does, and maybe most importantly, to tolerate what he does from those around him, including his superiors. The heart of the movie, and an excellent performance from Glover.

The rest of the Buffalo soldiers include a focus on Corporal Christy (Mykelti Williamson), Wyatt's close friend who always seems to be getting himself into trouble, and Sergeant Joyu Ruth (Glynn Turman), a grizzled veteran and another friend of Wyatt's. Also look for Lamont Bentley, Michael Warren, David Jean Thomas, Gabriel Casseus, and Clifton Powell as H Troop soldiers. I would have liked some more background on all these men, from Wyatt through the company, but some of the movie's strongest moments are those when we see the bond of friendship among the troop. Riding in formation on the trail, sitting around a campfire with a cup of coffee, doing upkeep on the fort, those are the moments that ring most true.  

The visual is there -- a cavalry company outlined against the setting sun on the horizon -- and the action is excellent, if not there in abundance. It can vicious and startling, but that's how it was in the fighting between the cavalry and the Apaches. It is only in the final act that things fall apart a touch. In hopes of doing what is right and just, Wyatt and H Troop do something that while noble could potentially cost the lives of countless others down the trail someplace. The story becomes a little too much in looking at the history with idolizing eyes, especially the final scene. It's a good movie, a pretty good TV movie, but brace yourself a little for the finale.

Buffalo Soldiers (1997): ** 1/2 /****

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