Theodore Roosevelt, a President who did a little bit of everything. Beyond his two-term presidency though, what is he most known for? His involvement in the Spanish American War, told quite well in a 1997 TV miniseries, Rough Riders.
It's 1898 and the American government is in a bit of a spot. News of Spanish atrocities and cruel leadership in Cuba are making international news to the point American intervention seems like a sure thing. Who's at the forefront of that movement? Assistant secretary of the Navy Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (Tom Berenger). He's been given approval to assemble a volunteer regiment of cavalry that will be sent to Cuba with American forces to stop the Spanish. Who is he looking to volunteer? Cowboys, mountain men, trailsmen, and anyone who can handle themselves when the bullets start to fly. He gets that and more as the volunteers assemble in Texas for training. What awaits the regiment of rough-hewn volunteers? Only the fighting in Cuba will tell.
Over the last month or so, this becomes the third TNT TV movie I've reviewed with 2001's Crossfire Trail and 1997's Buffalo Soldiers. I wish TNT still made historically-based movies like this! This 1997 miniseries is probably the network's biggest venture, a movie with impressive scale, a deep cast and a 187-minute running time. It comes from director John Milius (who also wrote the script with Hugh Wilson), a good, underrated tough guy director to helm a good tough guy flick like this. 'Riders' doesn't rewrite the historical epic/action genre, just content to tell a historical story that is known if not widely known. Elmer Bernstein turns in a fine throwback(ish) musical score, the cast looks to be having a lot of fun, and seeing a story that sticks pretty close to the historical truth? How can you lose?
The historical truth is pretty daunting for a filmmaker to take on. 'Riders' does a good job portraying not just Roosevelt and his famous cavalry volunteers, but many involved in the war from a variety of perspectives. We see the government, including President William McKinley (Brian Keith, a Milius favorite) and his secretary of state (R. Lee Ermey). We see the journalists/writers from William Randolph Hearst (George Hamilton) to Stephen Crane (Adam Storke), Frederick Remington (Nick Chinlund) to Edward Marshall (Williamt Katt). From the military perspective, we see Gary Busey and Dale Dye (a Marine Corps veteran) in power positions trying to lead the Cuban expedition. 'Riders' more than justice to the times, tackling a lot but doing a good job across the board in setting the stage for our historical story. It could have been easy for it to all slip away, but Milius helms it all nicely.
This is an ensemble cast -- a pretty strong one at that -- but I thought Tom Berenger stood out from the rest as future President Teddy Roosevelt. You read about Roosevelt, and it sounds like a caricature but no. This was one fiery, lively, opinionated, fun-loving man with some wide-ranging interests. Berenger brings him to life from his unique speech patterns to his very physical movements and non-stop energy. He makes Roosevelt more though, a human being, not just a caricature. We see Teddy with his wife (Illeana Douglas) who he misses to an extreme level, how he bonds with his men around a campfire during training, how he's emotionally distraught at seeing his men killed in battle, the exhaustion that sets in after a costly battle. Big and boisterous but never overdone, Berenger does an excellent, scene-stealing job as Roosevelt. I also learned something from the film, finding out Roosevelt wasn't always the commander of the Rough Riders. He became the commander but no spoilers.
Okay, a movie about the Rough Riders so let's talk about Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Milius uses a familiar, well-worn and effective formula here; the unit picture. Assemble a group of men from different backgrounds, put them together, let them train and bond and then throw them into battle. There's a lot of characters so there's not always a ton of development but who stands out from the rest? Brad Johnson plays Nash, an outlaw (with partner Buck Taylor) who joins the outfit to escape a posse. Sam Elliott brings his tough guy swagger to play Capt. Bucky O'Neill, an Arizona lawman turned drill sergeant. And also, Chris Noth plays Craig Wadsworth, an upper class New Yorker looking to prove himself in battle. It's a very solid cast, and that's just the start. The rest of the group isn't necessarily big names, but there's familiar faces playing some cool characters.
Who else to look for? Joining Noth as the upper-class NYC gentlemen are Holt McCallany, Mark Moses, Titus Welliver and James Parks. As for the less-gentlemanly among the Rough Riders, watch for Geoffrey Lewis, Francesco Quinn, Eric Allan Kramer, Bob Primeaux, and in an excellent supporting part, Marshall R. Teague as a young Black Jack Pershing, commander of a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers fighting alongside the Rough Riders.
Nothing too fancy here, just a good, entertaining movie with a throwback kind of feel. The first 90 minutes sets up the background, assembling the regiment and introducing the characters, and then throwing them into training. By the end of the first half, we're thrust into the fighting in Cuba. The centerpiece of the second half of 'Riders' is not surprisingly the attack on San Juan Hill, the battle that made the Rough Riders an instantly recognizable name and regiment. There are some slow moments building up to the battle, but the actual assault on the heavily fortified hill is a gem of an extended sequence. An excellent flick on all accounts. History buffs will especially enjoy it so it gets an easy recommendation from this guy.
Rough Riders (1997): ***/****